Monday, 2017-06-12

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Comprising of the novels (or parts): The Shadow of the Torturer · The Claw of the Conciliator · The Sword of the Lictor · The Citadel of the Autarch

I’m re-reading these for the first time since my teens - I believe I read them through a couple of times then. Since then I’ve followed Wolfe’s career and read The Wizard King, and I still harbor fond memories of the New Sun series. It made a big impression on me.

Re-reading them now, I’m struck at their relative short length. At the time I read them, the fad for multi-volume fat fantasy series was still in the future. It could be that the many digressions, philosophical asides, and stories-within-the-story felt much longer when I was younger, and I just wanted to get to the action. Now however I find them much more engaging.

This action is pretty straight-forward. It’s essentially a picaresque, with our hero (despite his profession, he’s clearly a hero and not an anti-hero) moving through different settings, meeting, separating and re-uniting with different people, and basically sleeping with every woman he meets, which is frankly rather weird and somehow in variance with the character as presented.

Where the work excels is in the use of language. Wolfe famously used obscure and archaic terms for all sorts of items (and in the first book’s afterword it’s coyly suggested this is because he’s trying to “translate” a future language) and this lends a real charm to what’s essentially far-future SF.

The following long passage from the start of Shadow illustrates this well. Severian is talking about one of the two masters of his guild.

[Master] Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man’s idea of simplicity.

Just as a courtier forms himself into something brilliant and involved, midway between a dancing master and a diplomacist, with a touch of assassin if needed, so Master Gurloes had shaped himself to be the dull creature a pursuivant or bailiff expected to see when he summoned the head of our guild, and that is the only thing a real torturer cannot be. The strain showed; though every part of Gurloes was as it should have been, none of the parts fit. […] Sometimes he went to the top of our tower, above the guns, and waited there talking to himself, peering through glass said to be harder than flint for the first beams [of the rising Sun]. He was the only one in our guild—Master Palaemon not excepted—who was unafraid of the energies there and the unseen mouths that spoke sometimes to human beings and sometimes to other mouths in other towers and keeps. […] His eyes were refulgent, brighter than any woman’s. He mispronounced quite common words: urticate, salpinx, bordereau. I cannot well tell you how bad he looked when I returned to the Citadel recently, how bad he looks now.

The Urth of the New Sun

This sequel is a mess. Wolfe fell into the trap of trying to “explain” all the fascinating background stuff in the first novels, and the result is a sprawling, time-jumping jumble that introduces extraneous concepts for no very good reason. For superfans only.

Wednesday, 2017-05-31

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Not really up to the standards I’ve set for Gleick. It’s not really quite clear what he wants to do with his subject. The fictional portrait drawn in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle sounds like it’s drawn from the same sources but gives a more vivid picture.

Thursday, 2017-05-25

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

A very interesting history but you won’t find any salicious details about depraved emperors or famous battles. Well worth reading if you know a bit about Roman history beforehand.

Sunday, 2017-05-14

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

McDonald likes submerging himself in other settings and getting into the heads of their (near) future inhabitants. He’s obviously done a lot of research for this book, and from my bookish North European viewpoint his future fractured India rings true. It’s certainly easy to fall into the cadence of Anglo-English when reading some of the interior monologues, but it goes beyond that, to an appreciation of the culture and mores that nuanced and well written.

The framing SF plot (rogue AIs planning to do something) is beside the point. The central story is of the characters and their interactions.

Sunday, 2017-05-07

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

A sequel to New Moon. The series can now be read as a dialog and critique of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I must confess I have never read, and purposefully written to make Heinlein, his epigones, and the fans who think his style of SF is the only real SF choke on a bag of dicks. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 2017-05-06

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

A great biography over a man many times called great. A good overview of the key points of his career, wrapped up in a nice framework of history and anecdote.

Wednesday, 2017-04-19

Goodreads account

Moving to reading electronically has broken up the reading experience for me. Books are now just a stream on a screen and I need to keep track of them in a better way. So I’ve got an account at Goodreads and I’m slowly transferring the reviews on this site to there.

I think I’ll still add the reviews here but this will let me keep track of reading dates etc. with a bit more precision.

Tuesday, 2017-04-18

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

A narrative history of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Monday, 2017-03-13

The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones

Fast-paced narrative history about the last of the Plantagenets and the ascension of Henry VII. Very readable and a good overview of the period.

Friday, 2017-03-10

The Fall of Japan, by William Craig

A chatty and personality-driven account of the last weeks of the war in the Pacific. Skippable.

Tuesday, 2017-03-07

Three books by John McPhee

Back in the days of yore, when what we now call “longreads” where simply New Yorker articles, giants such as John McPhee bestrode the Earth, writing detailed inimitable books about subjects like geology.

The Control of Nature is about mankind’s attempt to control vast amounts of material propelled by gravity - water, in the form of the Mississippi River; lava, i.e. most of Iceland; and the fast-rising San Gabriel mountains, which inconvenience Los Angeles properties by insisting on eroding.

In each of these cases, Man in his hubris has erected vast structures and machinery to protect material values threatened by Nature, which is essentially the theme of the book. McPhee is not optimistic on Man’s chances in the long run.

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed is about a bunch of New Jersey dudes trying to build a new airship. The effort peters out shortly after the events covered in the book (early 1971) and now the only mention of the company involved cite this book. So it goes.

The Crofter and the Laird - McPhee spends a summer on the remote island in the Hebrides wherefrom his ancestors sprung - Colonsay. The book paints an elegiac picture of a world in decline, so I was happy to read that the island has actually increased in population according to Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 2017-01-04

The Corporation Wars: Insurgence by Ken MacLeod

Second volume in the series.

Unlike in Engines of Light, this second novel simply continues the action of the first, setting up for (hopefully) an explosive payoff.

I’m happy to read anything by MacLeod and I didn’t regret this either, but he has written better.

Tuesday, 2016-08-30

Going Dark by Linda Nagata

Last book in The Red trilogy. Sadly the weakest of the three.

Sunday, 2016-08-21

The Trials by Linda Nagata

The second book in The Red trilogy. First one was reviewed here.

Maybe not the very best near-future mil-SF I’ve read but pretty good nonetheless.

Thursday, 2016-08-18

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

The Ancillary trilogy brought to a satisfactory close.

Monday, 2016-08-15

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence by Ken MacLeod

Warning: mild spoilers.

Sadly not one of MacLeod’s better books.

I think the idea of a series makes sense commercially. But while this book touches on similar themes as Newton’s Wake it feels more rushed.

The central conflict between the Acceleration and the Reaction (“Axle” and “Rax”) is hugely important, but we don’t really get a background in why we should care. I guess the Rax is the current “alt right” internet trolls with nukes and nanotech, or it could all be a huge mindfuck like the fact that the Carlyles in Newton’s Wake were originally Glaswegian gangsters, and the hated Rax are actually the good guys?

In short, the book doesn’t really delve into the fantastically unreliable narrator a simulated human could be, instead presenting people doing life-altering things simply from reading a message, despite knowing they’re in a simulation run by possibly hostile AIs. As this is an area that’s been explored before by MacLeod, simply skipping it to get plot momentum seems sloppy.

However it’s an enjoyable read and I will most definitely read the rest of the series. Maybe the big payoff is in the last book. I hope so!

Friday, 2016-05-27

Descent by Ken MacLeod

I’m conflicted about this novel. I’m a MacLeod superfan ever since buying The Star Fraction in hardcover in the late 90s but this one seems a bit derivative. To me it reads as if he’s channeling Charlie Stross’ near-future Scotland in Rule 34 (although MacLeod has visited that future in The Night Sessions) and Iain Bank’s coming-of-age novels (The Crow Road, Stonemouth).

The ideas in the book are things we’ve read before too, and the characters less well developed.

In other words, this is for the MacLeod completionist.

That said, I’ve read everything he’s written apart from Intrusion (because I’m too old for dystopias), and will continue to do so. I still feel he’s better at the interstellar SF of The Fall Revolution and Engines of Light series. Hopefully his upcoming trilogy will continue on that tradition.

Monday, 2016-04-25

Into Everywhere by Paul McAuley

The second novel set in McAuley’s Jackaroo universe (after Something Coming Through).

If you liked the first book (or like McAuley in general), you’ll like this one.

Tuesday, 2016-01-19

Roadside Picnic, a novel by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, and Сталкер, a film by Andrei Tarkovsky

I picked the book up thinking it would be a re-read from my teenage years, but I didn’t remember anything about it so I must have just thought I read it[1]. I do remember seeing the movie around that time though, as the totally awesome film club in my hometown showed a Tarkovsky retrospective.

The novel and film have little in common, apart from the Zone, the fact that the Stalker has a “defective” daughter, and that the Zone contains something that grants wishes. In the novel, the Stalker Red is depicted as a tough man, skilled in the arts of getting objects out of the Zone and selling them for profit. In the movie, he’s a mystical guide. However, Tarkovsky’s scenography is absolutely spot on, depicting the Zone as an overgrown wilderness containing hidden dangers.

Of course, the concept of “the Zone” has taken on a new meaning after Chernobyl, but it’s interesting to see that Tarkovsky could find settings in the FSU long before that.

The Wikipedia entry for the novel mentions that it was censored at publication. It would be interesting to know that the censors found objectionable. The protagonists are depicted as thieves and profiteers, but they’re also supposed to be Canadian. Maybe the problem was that the antagonists were among the authority figures?

[1] The SF shelf at the local library had quite a lot of Strugatsky and Lem, maybe because they felt that most SF was too “American”.

Wednesday, 2015-12-30

The Peripheral by William Gibson.

Reading Gibson is always a treat. Nice to see him still firing on all cylinders.

Tuesday, 2015-12-22

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Easily McDonald’s most bloody book, even if the themes of corporate warfare and melange of cultures can be traced all the way back to Desolation Road.

I love everything this dude writes so I highly recommend this.

Monday, 2015-12-07

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Continuing in the tradition of his earlier YA novel Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi transposes the harsh reality of today’s refugees from climate change to a future United States. It’s sobering to realize the horrors in this novel are likely happening right now to people in places where no journalists bother to report from.

Rising temperatures has devastated the US South and West. States have de-facto seceded, closing their borders to refugees from Texas and Arizona. Phoenix is #downthetubes as states with more senior rights to water are ruthlessly enforcing their claims, sending “water knives” to destroy dams and water treatment plants, forcing entire cities to try to move elsewhere for the very basics of life.

In his previous novel The Windup Girl the scenario was life after peak oil. While great, that novel took a leap from our world to the future without really explaining how things got so bad. The scenario in this book is more terrifying - me may never run out of oil but we may run out of potable water.

Wednesday, 2015-11-04

The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

Competent near-future military SF. First book in a trilogy.

Monday, 2015-10-19

Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

Asher for me occupies that niche of SF writers that I like to read but don’t atively seek out. He’s readable and has decent world-building chops but something about him doesn’t grab me. That said, I enjoy his hard-boiled prose and refreshingly nihilistic view of future society.

Said nihilism can shade into something like fascism, like in the near-future Owner trilogy, but in the far future Polity universe, where humanity is led by AIs anyway, it grates far less. In a sense, Asher is the anti-Banks.

The novel under discussion marks a return to the Polity, or rather its lawless border region with the over-the-top homicidal Pradors. These aliens, denoted as “utterly evil” by our protagonists, are neverless examined as actors in their own right, in another sign of Asher’s even-handedness. Life in the future may be nasty and brutish, but if you’ve got access to the right (or wrong!) technology, it’s reasonably long. Long enough for you to dwell on your mistakes or plan elaborate revenge.

Saturday, 2015-10-03

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

A short novella, not set in any of the previous Reynolds universes. A short read, but quite good.

Monday, 2015-06-29

Snuten i skymningslandet: Svenska polisberättelser i roman och film 1965-2010 by Michael Tapper

Big thick doctoral thesis about Swedish police and crime novels and movies from the 1960s until today.

Covers Sjöwall-Wahlöö, Mankell, Stieg Larsson. To appreciate it, you have to read it for what it is, an academic work, and also know how to read Swedish.

Tuesday, 2015-03-17

Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley

This is a full-length novel set in McAuley’s “Jackaroo” universe, previously the setting of some short stories early in his career.

In the Near Future(tm), the alien Jackaroo appear over an Earth ravaged by climate change, economic collapse and rampant nuclear terrorism - The Spasm. They offer humanity free transport to fifteen habitable planets via wormhole gates. There are no strings attached (well our space program is ended, but it’s not clearly forbidden as it is in the previous stories).

Humanity has a new chance. Just like the countless other civilizations the Jackaroo have assisted in the past.

The gift planets are rife with artifacts left over from the “Elder Races”, not all of them benign or useful. For every fast-growing coral useful to constructing dams against the rising oceans, there’s a new drug spreading havoc. People have the chance to emigrate and start a new life on a new world, where they promptly fall back into a life of crime or start McDonald’s franchises.

Our protagonists come in contact with an alien eidolon, a ghost left in an artifact from the planet Mandala, and are caught up in a race against time to reach a dig site out in the planet’s outback… where something’s coming through…

I’m a huge fan of McAuley and really enjoyed this book. It’s an artful blend of first contact, humans vs alien and police procedural, and it takes a while to figure out how the two strands of the story is intertwined.

Big props to my local library for ordering this book basically as soon as it appeared in stores!

Search this site for the term: mcauley.

Tuesday, 2015-02-17

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

The sequel to Ancillary Justice. Every bit as good.

Monday, 2015-02-02

The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution by David Andress

A good overview of that most dramatic period of the French Revolution. Andress puts it into the context of foreign war and domestic insurrection.

The Revolution casts a long shadow, and Andress does a good job explaining why. After 225 years, we take constitutional government and the separation of church and state for granted. But the French nation went from quasi-medieval absolutism with a de-facto Catholic state church to radical republic and official dechristianization within a few years. All this was lubricated by hectoliters of blood and the complete suspension of due process.

No wonder the existing powers of Europe viewed this much as they later viewed the Bolsheviks (themselves conscious imitators of the French) and pulled out all the stops to oppose the Revolution.

Also interesting is that the designation of “Terror” as an official policy wasn’t a later calumny, but actually the official name.

The revolutionaries were also horrible misogynists. Politics was not for women, in fact individuals like Mme Roland were especially singled out and vilified.

Monday, 2015-01-26

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

An excellent historical novel. As in her later Wolf Hall, Mantel does a creditable job inhabiting the inner minds of her characters.

I’m simultanously listening to Mike Duncan’s most excellent Revolutions podcast which is a great help in grasping the wider history of the Revolution. Just as in Wolf Hall, Mantel expects you to have a better grip of history than perhaps you remember from school.

Sunday, 2015-01-11

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations by Norman Davies

A superlative general history of some now vanished states in Europe. From the well-known (Burgundy, Aragon) to the obscure (Etruria, Rusyn), Davies discusses their history and compares their fates.

The book is thought-provoking, as it makes clear that not all nations are destined to lead long lives. Davies is convinced for example that the UK will break apart, citing the example of how Ireland extricated itself during the 20th century.

Monday, 2014-10-06

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This book has justifiably swept the SF awards lately. It’s an intricately designed space opera set in a human future that’s unsettlingly plausible. I’m usually tired of literal “space empires” but Leckie makes enough assumptions to make it work.

Of course there are downsides. The Radch expand by war, “annexing” rival systems and integrating their people and religions into their own. The titular “ancillaries” are prisoners of war, stripped of personality and memory and turned into elements of giant ship’s AI.

Underneath the genteel veneer of tea ceremonies, ritual gloves, and gender-neutral pronouns (everyone is “she” in this novel, a great touch) lies a dark heart of absolute power, state-sponsored euthanasia and utter lack of privacy, if you live on a ship or a Station monitored by an AI. Leckie avoids the trap of simply transplanting today’s society into the far future and gives us a glimpse of something that’s rather different - if instantly recognizable as human.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2014-09-09

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

It’s apparently not a fantasy book series unless it’s at least a trilogy, and while I felt the abrupt ending of The Magician King was fitting for what I felt was the end of a Bildungsroman, I wasn’t too surprised to see The Magician’s Land in print.

That’s not to say I wasn’t happy. Grossman’s three books do a brilliant job of deconstructing the tropes of the magician’s school. It’s Harry Potter meets The Rules of Attraction, and Narnia at least gets a varnish of Lovecraft. The multiverse of the novels is brilliantly constructed and internally consistent.

Tying up all the loose strands of a story is hard work though, and while Grossman does a great job of setting the scene and telling the first half of the book, the last falls rather flat. However, only in the context of what’s gone before. It’s still one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read, ever.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2014-07-15

The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

The latest Laundry novel takes on vampires! Stross does a good job integrating the known lore about his universe - magic as a side-effect of applied mathematics - and his explanation about the origins of his vampiric cell makes internal sense.

However, if there’s one criticism that can be levelled at Stross is that his plotting could be better. This novel deal with double-cross upon double-cross and it gets confusing about who’s crossing who. To deal with this, jarring interludes of exposition are introduced that try to explain what’s happening.

Saturday, 2014-05-10

Two novels by Paul McAuley

  • 400 Hundred Billion Stars
  • Eternal Light

These are McAuley’s debut novels, and while they’re set in the same universe, they’re very different. 400 Hundred Billion Stars is basically an alien-contact novel. Functionally it’s a space opera, although thankfully not of the Galactic Imperium style. The main character is also a telepath, and although that’s handwaved as a form of quantum tunneling it’s still a rather 70s detail.

The second crams too much into one novel - Gibsonesque McGuffin chasing, virtual reality, intra-galactic wormholes, civil war IN SPACE, religious fanatic, alien macrostructures. The sensawunda is relegated to background noise.

However I’m a big fan of McAuley and I’m glad I’ve read these. They’re not bad books, just that he’s written better since.

Saturday, 2014-05-03

April reads

Bit late, I read the following books in April:

  • Sandman Slim and Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
  • Crack’d Pot Trail by Stephen Erikson

Tuesday, 2014-04-22

Confluence by Paul McAuley

A trilogy, comprising of the novels Child of the River, Ancient of Days, and Shrine of Stars.

It’s one of McAuley’s first novels and even if it’s cleaned up in this re-release I still think it’s a very good effort. The atmospherics of this far-future world are well-rendered. It reminds me of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, in a good way. Recommended.

Tuesday, 2013-11-05

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

If I hadn’t already read World War Z I’d probably enjoy this book a lot more. However, the parallells between the two books are so close it’s not really funny. While Robopocalypse starts up well and has some chilling early chapters, it soon becomes clear that Wilson lacks the energy or the imagination to draw the conclusions about the world he’s created that Brooks does in WWZ.

Saturday, 2013-11-02

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

This is the first novel by Baxter I’ve read and I was impressed by it. It’s classic sensawunda SF but is also well-written and gripping. There’s also a refreshingly view of future realpolitik that is both plausible and chilling. Recommended.

Sunday, 2013-08-11

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A sort of hipster Dan Brown, this is nevertheless an entertaining novel, if you can get over the idolization of Google within its pages.

Friday, 2013-08-09

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

An entertaining look on the human digestive system. Roach has a breezy style - sometimes too breezy, her one-liners aren’t really as funny as she seems to think - but most of all a serious approach to science writing. What sticks with you after having read the book is not all the gross facts, but a deep appreciation of the men and women working with a fascinating area of research.

Monday, 2013-07-29

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

I really like the universe McAuley has created in his Quiet War series. It’s sizable (solar systems-wide) but it’s believable.

This last(?) book takes place thousands of years after the events in Gardens of the Sun. A mighty regime, the Empire of the True, has risen and fallen after picking a fight with artificial intelligences. The solar system is battered, in recession, and beset by superstitious cults. Our hero Hari sets off on a quest of vengeance, complete with maguffin, after his family’s ship is captured by sinister forces. Recommended.

Wednesday, 2013-07-24

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

Set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, Stross does a neat end-run around the problems of slower-than-light interstellar colonization by killing off biological humanity and replacing us with our mechanical descendants. They’ve managed to progress beyond the feudal hellhole of the first novel and are now in the middle of debt-fuelled late-stage capitalism, complete with scams and frauds designed to get hold of “slow money” - the hugely valuable bitcoinage financing colonizing starships.

Entertaining if rather heavy on the settings to the detriment of the plot.

Saturday, 2013-07-20

Scottish SF re-reads for July

The Engines of Light trilogy by Ken MacLeod

  • Cosmonaut Keep
  • Dark Light
  • Engine City

The first book is maybe setting the bar higher than the other two can clear but there’s an undeniable pleasure in reading the entire series straight through.

  • Newton’s Wake by the same author.

Late-period Iain M. Banks

  • The Algebraist
  • Matter

Having finally read Hyperion I believe I can see where the inspiration for The Algebraist comes from. The space opera setting reminds me a lot of Simmon’s book.

I don’t really know what to say about Matter. It’s not one of my favourite Culture novels but re-reading it gave me a new appreciation of Banks’ talents as a writer.

Monday, 2013-07-08

Summer reading 2013

  • Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross
  • The Stone Canal by Ken McLeod

Quick re-reads of two novels by Scottish-based authors, dealing with similar themes - artificial intelligence, and what it means to be sentient and free.

  • Zoé’s Tale by John Scalzi
  • Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

I borrowed these at the Halmstad library. Zoé’s Tale is written as a YA novel and it shows, but Scalzi’s trademark humour and the weirdly dark space opera universe it’s set in carries it.

Bedlam is a fun romp where the protagonist is trapped in a computer game. It’s better than it sounds!

Monday, 2013-06-03

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

A superlative piece of history writing. I honestly wished this wouldn’t end. One of the good things about it was giving me a perspective on medieval France, a region that I didn’t know much about. Tuchman’s “hero”, the last Sieur de Coucy, comes across as a complex, well-rounded man, grounded in his age and class but uncommonly competent. His journey through the century enables Tuchman to touch on topics such as religion, the status of Jews and women, wealth and status, even sanitation.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2013-04-02

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Audiobook narrated by Simon Vance.

The second installment of Mantel’s series about Thomas Cromwell. This is all about the fall of Anne Boleyn. This is the best historical fiction I’ve read since early Patrick O’Brian.

Monday, 2013-03-04

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

Comprising the volumes Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, Assembling California, and Crossing the Craton.

Audiobooks, narrated by Nelson Runger.

McPhee is sort of an acquired taste, and 5 volumes of geology can be hard to swallow (although Runger does a stellar job reading them), but he covers the state of the research well. If you only read or listen to one volume, choose the first, which has a lucid explanation of the concept of deep time in geology.

Friday, 2013-02-08

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Audiobook, narrated by Gideon Emery.

The fourth Laundry novel. Stross has fun linking fundie Christianity with the worship of unspeakable horrors from beyond the stars, but the expected chills aren’t really as apparent as in The Atrocity Archives and The Fuller Memorandum.

It does seem that Stross is going to go through with the endgame of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN (aka The End of the World) as the series goes forward.

Wednesday, 2012-11-28

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Another novel by Banks set in the Culture universe, but not as “filling” as his previous novels. We get a nice look into the technicalities of Subliming, and some more intra-Mind discussion à la Excession, but the book lacks that kind of “hook” that Banks uses so often — where some long-lost secret of the protagonists comes back to haunt them.

Part of the problem that Banks has set up with the Culture is its very superiority. In Consider Phlebas, this was countered with an intra-galactic war. Use of Weapons and others concentrated on the moral choices of Contact and Special Circumstances when they meddled in less developed societies. Excession used the cop-out to introduce a threat that simply just mirrors the Culture’s force (granted, it’s the point of the novel, but still, having a deus ex machina as the center of a story is a bit … strange).

The Hydrogen Sonata introduces the Gzilt, a civilization on the same tech level as the Culture, and the conflict this time is constrained by the fact that certain elements want to keep a secret and are prepared to kill to do so, but using covert means. So while there’s ship-to-ship combat it’s constrained by this secrecy, and a hard deadline (literally!). This gives Banks some scope in keeping conflicts between two literally superhuman factions within thrilling reason.

In the end however, this feels more like an expanded novella than a novel. Recommended for Culture fans, of course!

Wednesday, 2012-11-21

Gridlinked by Neal Asher

This is Asher’s first novel and it’s a bit of a mess, thematically. However, the Polity universe is well conceived and he follows up well in the following novels.

Saturday, 2012-10-13

The Art of War by Kelly Roman

A powerful graphic novel set in a near-future near-dystopia where hedge funds and quants rule the world. The graphics and story are powerful, even disturbing, but the author has a hard time wrapping it up and resorts to a rather feel-good ending unworthy of the rest of the tale.

Monday, 2012-10-08

The Departure by Neal Asher

Hyperviolent SF thriller set in a dystopian future where the EU has taken over the world! Well-paced and plotted but feels a bit formulaic. Not gonna stop me from seeking out the sequel though!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

A superlative historical novel.

Set in the reign of Henry VIII, it follows Thomas Cromwell, so often cast as villian of this era, portrayed as a devoted family man, a man with a violent past but with uncommon talents, loyal to his prince and unswerving in ensuring the Tudor reign and preventing a new War of the Roses.

Narrated by Simon Slater, who does a stellar job. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 2012-09-23

Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

Second book in The Expanse trilogy, and this one is really well done, with plenty of action and some believable technical details. I read the first book last week, my local library is well-stocked with current SF!

I can’t help being reminded by Paul McAuley’s Quiet War universe, set in basically the same place in the Solar system and with similar tensions. They’re both very good but Corey’s books are more pure space opera. Read them all and compare!

Sunday, 2012-09-16

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

An interesting space opera centered on the near-ish future and the solar system. There’s a lot of cool ideas and the structure of the novel, with two viewpoints, is well done. What fails a bit is the plotting, there’s at least one climax too many.

This is the first book in a series, and I’ll definitely check out the rest of the books!

Sunday, 2012-09-09

Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee

McPhee investigates freight transport - trucks, barge convoys, coal trains, and UPS.

In the middle is a recreation of Thoreau’s canoe trip in the 1820s, which may have been of great interest to the author but feels pretty longwinded to me. The rest of the content is classic McPhee. Recommended.

Wednesday, 2012-09-05

Empire State by Adam Christopher

A flawed novel, great premise but the execution could be better.

Wednesday, 2012-08-29

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

A well-deserved Hugo winner, I’ve put off reading Hyperion for a long time because the copy on the back of the book always rubbed me the wrong way - giving a more fantasy vibe than the novel actually posesses.

It’s classic space opera - a bit too classic, with the assumption that after Earth is destroyed by a rogue black hole - oops! - mankind expands across the galaxy in the Hegira. But all the different worlds are eventually knit together in the WorldWeb farcaster network, a network of portals. This Hegemony looks a lot like our society, which felt cheap to me. But it turns out it’s no accident…

We have religious fanatics, electric trees, flying carpets, AIs, and galactic warfare! Plus of course the Shrike, the mysterious demon haunting the world of Hyperion, drawing pilgrims who are granted a wish or are killed.

Highly recommended. I listened to an Audible version with a full cast, which worked well considering the fact that all the travellers have different tales to tell.

Sunday, 2012-08-26

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Jane Austen - WITH DRAGONS!

The back cover promises “you have never read a novel like Tooth and Claw” but the fact is we have, in a good way. There the base of the Georgian society novel, leavened with opera buffa plot twists, all mixed with traditional fantasy dragon tropes - sleeping on gold, breathing fire, eating smaller dragons to grow larger. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Wednesday, 2012-07-25

The God Engines by John Scalzi

A short dark fantasy novelette. A quick and rather disturbing read.

Tuesday, 2012-07-24

Orbus by Neal Asher

The concluding(?) volume of Asher’s Spatterjay novels. This one leaves the actual planet for the wider reaches of the Polity universe. It fails in that the characters in it aren’t really sympathetic, any of them, but neither are they really bad. So despite the action there’s a distinct lack of tension.

Monday, 2012-07-23

Redshirts by John Scalzi

A funny take on the tropes of television SF series. You’re really not supposed to take them seriously, if you do, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on. This is a view from the inside of such a series.

Sunday, 2012-07-15

Stonemouth by Iain Banks

A young man returns to the small Scottish town he was forced to leave 5 years ago. The local patriarch has died and he’s invited to the funeral - said patriarch being the head of the local crime family he so mortally insulted half a decade ago.

This is a bit like The Crow Road, but tighter and less generational. Sometimes you get the feeling Banks is writing the same Scottish novel over and over again. However, his characters and settings are top-notch, and his effortless placing of the novel in the now is as good as ever.

Wednesday, 2012-07-11

The Skinner by Neal Asher

First novel in Asher’s Spatterjay series, and oddly not as compelling as the second, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, but still an entertaining read.

Thursday, 2012-06-21

The Voyage of the Sable Keech by Neal Asher

An entertaining space opera romp, where the entire premise seems to be “how can I get sailing ships and pirates into my universe? and zombies?!” and the rest of the stuff flows from there.

Well paced and competently written, this is a nice violent tome that doesn’t need too much intellectual attention.

Saturday, 2012-06-09

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

A very nice far-future/post-Singularity heist novel in the vein of Charlie Stross. Rajaniemi is of Finnish origin but his English is perfect. However, the non-Anglo imagery and language lends a believable international spice to the future of uploaded minds and quantum criminals.

Tuesday, 2012-06-05

Rights fail in the ebook world

So John Scalzi, internet phenomenon and SF author, has a new book out, Redshirts. As I am a fan of his work and admire what he’s managed to do, get the book published in electronic format without DRM, I thought I’d purchase it and read it on my iPhone.

I don’t have an account with Amazon as I live in Sweden and they’re not very well represented here, but I do have an iTunes account, and lo and behold, the book is available in the iTunes store!

Sorta.

Redshirts for "sale" in the iTunes Store

As you can see, I can buy the ebook in November for 85 SEK (€8.50) or pay double for the audiobook version and get that now. Why is this?

Well I don’t really have time for research but I’m guessing that as I am in the EU, the ebook rights belong to Scalzi’s UK publisher, while the audiobook rights are global.

Now I’m not interested in the audiobook, I don’t want to pay double for Wil Wheaton’s narration (he’s an unknown quantity in that regard) and besides, it’s more money than I want to spend. I would be perfectly happy to pay the money for the ebook, in fact I’m kind of making a point of doing so as I feel I have a more personal connection to Scalzi than your average faceless writer.

My question is, how does this help me buy a product legally and get money to an author? I really don’t want to hear about how legacy contracts are hindering a global launch of a book that’s been promoted heavily on the internet by its author. I really don’t see what kind of value-add Scalzi’s UK publisher is bringing to the table, or if it’s a sort of profit sharing deal with the US publisher. The only thing I care about is that I have money and the motive to legally purchase a product, but for some Byzantine reason I am told to wait, cap in hand, simply because I happen to live in another part of the planet.

And then there’s the fact that there are alternatives. They are ubiquitous, simple to use, and free! The only downside is that they are infringing on Scalzi’s copyright, and he won’t get any money. But I guess that’s not something that book publishers have to worry about, right?

Thursday, 2012-05-31

Kraken by China Mèiville

Another awesome novel by Mèiville, revealing a strange underground London full of weird religion and magic. The setup is great, the characters and concepts are awesome, but the ending falls a bit flat. But that’s just the final chapter and everything up to that is brilliant. Highly recommended.

Monday, 2012-05-14

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

A man is ripped from a deep sleep by a little girl. He’s in a room with other writhing bodies. It’s bitterly cold. The little girls runs, telling him to chase heat.

He’s propelled into a nightmare world of shifting gravity, of changing temperatures, of strange monsters out to kill him. He has only his memories, and crude notes gathered in a book by the little girl.

Where is he? Why was he born? Why don’t his memories of his previous life, preparing to be a teacher to a group of colonists preparing to settle a new world, jibe with the present nightmare reality?

Hull Zero Three is hard SF at its best, combining Bear’s trademark vision of weird biology with a frighteningly plausible look at how we would colonise an alien planet at any price.

Another review.

Friday, 2012-05-11

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis

I realised I haven’t blogged about this even though I read it a while back - the perils of ebooks…

This is a collection of articles that I think have been published in the Atlantic already. Lewis travels to Iceland, Greece, Germany, and Ireland to try to discover what happened when these countries were hit by the financial crisis tsunami. It’s a fun quick read, highly recommended.

Saturday, 2012-04-21

Neonomicon by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows

This graphic novel (emphasis on graphic, there’s plenty of bodily fluids flowing here) is a fresh take on the old Cthulhu mythos. I was interested in how Moore would handle it and he did it masterfully. Recommended if you like that kind of stuff.

Wednesday, 2012-03-07

Vacation reads, Feb 2012

I was recently on vacation in the UAE and read the following books, all on the iPhone.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The sequel to The Magicians which I have read but not mentioned here. A very nice fleshing out of the wonderful (and scary) universe Grossman introduced in that book. Highly recommended.

In the Mouth of the Whale by Paul McAuley

Far future SF set in the same universe as The Quiet War. McAuley goes from strength to strength.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Re-read.

Wednesday, 2012-02-22

Broken Angels by Richard K Morgan

The second novel in the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, this is yet another example of Morgan’s innovative SF noir. The writing’s tight, the action is brutal, the tech is cool, and the general sensibility is that even if you’re a supersoldier from the future who is effectively immortal, you can’t run away from your actions.

If you enjoyed Altered Carbon you’ll enjoy this too.

Monday, 2012-01-02

New Model Army by Adam Roberts

In the near future, anyone can be a soldier and wage war…

The novel depicts a UK where “New Model Armies”, essentially giant, permanent flash mobs with infantry weapons, are hired by states that are too poor to have their own armies to wage war for any purpose at all. The one the protagonist belongs to has been contracted by Scotland to fight to dissolve the Union.

As a logical conclusion of the move from footie hooliganism towards a permanent insurrection the novel has its points, as well as having some nicely written combat scenes. But having set up the concept, Roberts has a hard time wrapping up. The last quarter of the book is frankly a bit weird and doesn’t deliver on the promise of the initial premise.

Friday, 2011-12-23

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

What if there was a cure for aging? Would you take that cure?

I think nearly every human alive older than 25 would leap at the chance. That’s what they do in this chilling book, a world where a cheap genetic cure for aging is discovered and widely released. It’s a book length illustration of “be careful what you wish for”. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 2011-11-20

Embedded by Dan Abnett

I picked this up on a whim at the library and I knew nothing of the author. I was pleasantly surprised to read a decent tale of interstellar intrigue, in a universe where the Cold War still runs on after centuries and nearly a hundred colonised planets.

The military part of this novel is believable and well written. The depiction of the factions involved is rather cynical — I attribute this to the fact that Abnett is British and not American.

Recommended if you like military SF.

Sunday, 2011-11-13

Machine Man by Max Barry

A new SF satire by the author of Jennifer Government. As before, the satire trumps the SF, but in this case the protagonist/anti-hero gets more say and is creepily believable.

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

I saw the HBO miniseries based on this a few years ago and to be quite honest the TV series is very faithful to the story. While this book is a fast read and well written I can really recommend the TV series instead.

Sunday, 2011-11-06

Two Generals by Scott Chantler

A fine little graphic novel/biography of the author’s grandfather, a lieutenant in the Canadian Highland Light Infantry during World War II.

Sunday, 2011-10-30

The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod

After dealing with the Singularity (The Fall Revolution cycle and Newton’s Wake) MacLeod takes a look at the Simulation Argument with his customary mix of politics and reminisces of recent (Scottish) history. We’ve been in these areas before - the parts of the Fall Revolution set in ex-Soviet Central Asia echo in the fictional Automomous Republic of Krassnia. And likewise the background in radical academia in Edinburgh in the 1970s.

If you’re a fan of MacLeod, as I am, this is not to be missed. But I’m not sure if it’s one of his better ones!

Monday, 2011-10-17

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

It’s hard to get a grip on this novel. It can be described as a modern-day geek technothriller. On the one hand, it’s densely plotted and very exciting, with none of the massive infodumps the author is (in)famous for. On the other hand, the entire book can be said to be a skeleton on which to hand a skein of infodumps. In other words, there’s a lot of action, but very little inner motivation.

I’d say it’s a season of “24” written by a nerd living in the US Northwest.

Sunday, 2011-10-09

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Stross continues to deliver on his near-future police procedurals set in an Edinburgh beset by the stormwinds of the future. What Stross lacks in empathy (he can be rather cold and clinical in his character portrayals) he more than makes up in sheer nerdy inventiveness. I can’t decide whether this book is better, worse or on par with Halting State, which is set in the same universe and contains a few of the same characters, but I do think it’s a book I’ll re-read just for the ideas.

Friday, 2011-10-07

The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams

This is a novel that’s that rare bird, believable space opera. Now, space opera by its very nature stretches belief, but even the fictional viability of the genre has been stretched in later years by that fell beast, the Singularity. Basically, the Singularity meme posits that sure, if we uploaded our minds into computers we might be able to solve the problem of faster-than-light travel etc, but we’ll probably no longer be human.

Williams neatly sidesteps the issue by creating an alien race,the Shaa, who subjugate all other intelligent species within reach of wormholes. They then keep everyone on pseudo-feudal societal stasis for a few thousand years, which lets the author provide his heroes with that space operatic staple, the quasi-Napoleonic navy. They also ruthlessly proscribe artificial intelligence, thus keeping the Singularity at bay.

Naturally, we plucky Earthmen lead the eventual rebellion against those pesky collectivist Naxids, who attempt to take over after the Shaa and basically kill everyone.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable read within its genre.

Monday, 2011-10-03

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

Wow, I finally made it to the end of a 10-book fantasy epic! I started the Malazan Book of the Fallen on book 3, Memories of Ice, and I remember getting thrown headlong into a weird fantasy universe unlike any other I’d seen before. Erikson operates in shades of gray, nothing more apparent than in this concluding volume where one of the main characters turns from antagonist to something like protagonist.

To be quite honest I don’t feel this last book was up to the standards of some of the previous. On the other hand, they retain the rare virtue of re-readability, and I look forward to reading through the entire series again.

Here are my “reviews” of some of the previous books, in order of the series:

Monday, 2011-08-29

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bagigalupi

Set in the same sort of bleak, post-Peak Oil future of The Windup Girl, this YA novel is a classic tale of boy of the people meets high-borne girl and goes on quest. But Bagigalupi keeps it real with a gritty and brutal story, pulling no punches in showing what’s needed to survive once “The Accelerated Age” collapses around us.

The chilling thing of course is that the inhuman conditions of our hero’s work dismantling old freighters along America’s Gulf Coast is occuring right now, on the ship breaking beaches of India and Pakistan.

Sunday, 2011-08-21

September books

Now the summer’s almost gone, it’s time to start reading some more. The following books have been acquired either via the library or SF Bokhandeln this weekend:

  • Paolo Bagigalupi, Ship Breaker
  • Steven Erikson, The Crippled God
  • Lev Grossman, The Magician King
  • Ken MacLeod, The Restoration Game
  • Charles Stross, Rule 34
  • Walter Jon Williams, The Praxis

I’m pretty sure I could have persuaded the library to purchase at least a few of these books, and it’s not as if I really need any more… but it’s also nice to have a good fat queue of books to read.

Thursday, 2011-06-16

Recent book roundup

I’ve been listening to audiobooks and reading on my iPhone lately so I’ve lost the discipline of actually mentioning the books I “read”. Here’s a roundup of recent ones.

Larry Niven, Protector

A novel set early in the Known Space universe, it’s the story of how the Pak protectors, the third stage of maturity in the originators of mankind, finally discover the ancient colony of Earth.

I haven’t read Niven in ages, and it’s fun to see how some themes of hard SF echo from this work to other novels written later.

Ursula K LeGuin, The Other Wind

A kind of wrap-up of Earthsea, dealing with the so-called afterlife there. Recommended for Earthsea completists.

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

Some decent stories here. For all his certified nerdiness, Vinge really can spin a story and he’s decent at characterization too.

Alistair Reynolds, Galactic North

A great collection of stories from the Revelation Space universe. Great audiobook reading by John Lee.

George R. Steward, Earth Abides

A classic post-apocalyptic novel.

Wednesday, 2011-04-13

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

A brilliant near-future thriller set in Turkey. It’s not as far-out SF as Brasyl but very good nonetheless.

Wednesday, 2011-03-23

Zero History by William Gibson

This is the third novel in Gibson’s “Bigend cycle”, and like his previous trilogies (Sprawl and Bridge) it wraps up the stories of the protagonists we’ve met so far. It feels like Gibson’s getting lazy, basically recycling the tropes and even the plots of his earlier novels, using the viewpoints of two different characters to present the same scene, engineering little love stories.

Also, if you like me read BoingBoing all the time, very few of the cool gadgets and concepts will be new to you.

But, Gibson is always Gibson and he can spin an entertaining yarn. I must say I didn’t really see the plot twists coming and even though the McGuffin in the beginning felt really lame it escalated nicely towards the end.

Monday, 2011-03-14

Mariposa by Greg Bear

Another book set in the same world as Quantico. Not bad if you like near-future thrillers.

Sunday, 2011-03-06

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

A stunning novel, opening new vistas into a possible dystopian future and bursting with cool ideas and locations. Highly recommended.

Monday, 2011-01-31

The Book of Genesis, by R. Crumb

This powerful work is the full text of Genesis, illustrated with the incomparable style of Robert Crumb. The earthy style suits this part of the Hebrew Bible perfectly, with its unwashed bearded patriarchs subsiding essentially as goatherds in a country looking very much like the modern Israel.

There are no elisions of repetitions or the recounting of obscure kings and chieftains, each lovingly depicted in a mini-portrait.

I haven’t read Genesis since in high school (and maybe then I just looked for the juicy parts, like Sodom and poor doomed Onan). This was a nice reunion with a text that for all its brutality and ancient weirdness still resonates in our culture.

Please note that the biblical circumlocution “to know” is graphically depicted, so if you’re uncomfortable seeing, for example, Lot’s daughters getting their dad drunk and making sure their lineage survives, you may have picked up the wrong book. The same goes for the multiple depictions of violent death and rape.

But it’s not in any way a sacrilegious text. Crumb takes the story literally, and renders it as it should be — a myth of one people’s beginnings, made special only because it survives from the mists of the dawn of time.

Tuesday, 2010-11-02

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

A new Culture novel is a must-read for me, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s the usual space opera setting of different species and civilisations, and if it’s not as densely plotted and (frankly) confusing as some of the other novels (I’m looking at you, Excession) it’s a more fun read. You probably need to be a Culture fan to properly appreciate it, but then, who isn’t?

Bonus for the return of an old friend, I did not see that coming!

Thursday, 2010-10-07

Terminal World, by Alistair Reynolds

Reynolds goes steampunk but with a nice far-out SF underpinning. The world-building is pretty good, but the story is rather heavy on exposition and long conversations. Way better than House of Suns, though. Recommended.

Wednesday, 2010-09-01

The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

This book features Sterling’s trademark rapid-fire illustrative language, but he plotting is much weaker than in his previous dystopian novels Heavy Weather and Holy Fire. The five surviving “caryatids”, results of an illegal cloning project during a massive climate crisis, are spread around the world. This gives Sterling a number of locations to basically tell a thriller story and infodump at the same time.

As idea-driven SF it’s great, as a novel, not so much. Recommended if you’re a Sterling fan though!

Friday, 2010-08-06

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

This amazing novel deserves all the accolades heaped upon it. I can’t believe I started reading this a few months ago but abandoned it after a few chapters. It’s a great book, immersing you in past, present and near-future Brazil and a super cool sensawunda explanation to how they’re tied together.

McDonald’s trademark language sizzles and pops, creating a wonderful presence in a country most of us know through old tourist films and horrific news reports about gangs running amok. The text is liberally strewn with Portuguese slang, adding to the verisimilitude. I discovered when I finished the book that there was a glossary (Pyr edition), but you can mostly grok the words from context.

Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to McDonald’s latest novel, The Dervish House.

Monday, 2010-08-02

Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley

This is the sequel to The Quiet War and I was worried McAuley wouldn’t wrap up all the plot threads and it would become a trilogy, a bit like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, a work it resembles in theme.

However, it all wraps up in a … not very happy ending per se, too many people are dead and too much damage has been done, but injustices have been righted and the villians have had their come-uppance. What’s notable about this work though, is the complexity of the characters. They are very believable, and McAuley does a good job of presenting even less sympathetic characters in a light that makes you aware of their motivations.

The science is spot-on, even if stuff like nanotech and advanced genetic engineering are glossed over. In fact it’s interesting reading in light of Charlie Stross’ recent musings about how practical a “pioneer” approach to space exploration would be. (For the standard libertarian, Heinlein-inspired view, see the opening and closing views of John Walker here.) McAuley describes a future colonising of Jupiter and Saturn as a post-capitalist endeavour, and contrasts it against the neo-feudalism of Greater Brazil on Earth.

Highly recommended!

Monday, 2010-07-26

Mainspring by Jay Lake

After my initial disappointment with an example of “steampunk” I was a bit leary of Mainspring, which depicts a world that literally runs like clockwork. But Lake is a much better writer than Priest, he reminds me of both Gene Wolfe and Ian McDonald. Highly recommended, and I hope the sequel Escapement keeps up the good work!

Sunday, 2010-07-18

Summer reading

Stridens skönhet och sorg by Peter Englund

This book by the renowned Swedish historian (now serving as the Perpetual Secretary of the Swedish Academy) explores the First World War through the diaries, letters, and official paperwork by and about a disparate collection of people.

As Englund says, it’s history at its most atomic. Copious footnotes explain the historical and factual background.

Refreshingly, the focus is spread away from the men at the (Western) front. We get insights into the lives of civilian schoolgirls in East Prussia, English nurses in Russian service, leatherbitten adventurers in East Africa, and French politicians.

By spreading his net wide and focusing laser-like on a few individuals, Englund shows the First World War for what it was: an international catastrophe that laid the bloody foundations of the last century and changed the world forever.

Hopefully this will soon be translated into English!

The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi

A novel set in a different universe than the Old Man’s War series, but which is basically the same as ours: sure, we’ve made contact with aliens but the only thing that happens to Earth is more embassies. Refreshingly, humans are on the bottom of the scale of galactic civilizations, which is a nice change from standard SF of this type where we naturally take our place with the big guys.

It’s an enjoyable yarn, competently spun.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

The third of the Laundry novels is a pastiche of Ludlum novels, replete with moles, double-agents and Russians. The Laundry is preparing for CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, when the stars are right and the Elder Gods will again walk the Earth. However, a crazy gang of cultists wants to accelerate the process and have their sights set on our geeky hero, Bob Howard.

Stross’ trademark blend of Lovecraftian horror and spy thriller isn’t really well-blended in this novel. There are some rough patches, and the very literal homage to 30s pulp cultists is a bit over the top - but maybe you really need to look and speak like that to invoke nameless horrors from beyond spacetime?

Another anachronism is the rampant iPhone adulation, which will age badly … but these kind of novels have a short sell-by date anyway.

Two more Laundry novels are in planning according to Stross’ FAQ and indeed the Cthulhu mythos is a very deep well with lots of ectoplasm to draw on. Let’s hope the coming novels are a bit better than this one though.

Night of Knives by Ian C. Esslemont

A novel set in the same universe as Steven Erikson’s novels about the Malazan empire, and indeed sharing a lot of the same characters. Esslemont co-created the world with Erikson but he’s not as good a writer, unfortunately. I guess you can say that he’s simply a competent one, while Erikson is great.

This novel really doesn’t add much to the Malazan mythos and can be safely skipped.

Wednesday, 2010-07-07

Players by Paul McAuley

A mainstream detective thriller by McAuley, who is mostly known for his SF. Competently put together but with an artificial air.

Tuesday, 2010-06-29

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

In a future after catastrophic climate change has ravaged Earth, the conservationist ruling families based there declare war on the Outers, the humans who’ve colonised Jupiter and Saturn space with self-sufficient habitats.

More a political thriller and spy story than SF, McAuley manages to depict a deep-space future better than many others. Still, even if the story rattles along in a fair clip there’s something lacking. McAuley doesn’t have Charlie Stross’ effortless nerdic flow, nor Ian McDonald’s fluency in depicting other cultures. For all that though, it’s recommended.

This is the first part of a series, the sequel is Gardens of the Sun.

McAuley is on Twitter as http://twitter.com/UnlikelyWorlds.

Sunday, 2010-06-27

Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present by Norman Davies

A well-written capsule history of Poland, that very interesting country.

Sunday, 2010-04-18

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

After reading this book I can say that “steampunk” as shown in this work is not for me[1].

The book is put together competently, but it’s too formulaic. Everything is like it should be: 19th century setting, alternate history, weird science that’s just a bit before its time, villains that are wholly evil, heroines that are not just good and virtuous but also subtly updated to reflect our times (and maybe also reflecting the author?). It’s just not good enough.

This book has had rave reviews on BoingBoing and is nominated for a Nebula. Priest seems like a nice person and she deserves her break. But to me, there’s more formulaic style than good solid substance.


[1] I enjoyed Miéville’s Perdido Street Station which has a strong steampunk vibe, but its inclusion of magic probably disqualifies it according to some arcane taxonomy.

Monday, 2010-03-22

Quantico by Greg Bear

This is SF author Bear’s foray into “the day after tomorrow” thrillers, featuring a future FBI hunting domestic bioterrorists. For some unexplained reason, the bureau is under political attack. This adds some artificial tension to the plot, but it’s mostly just something tacked on.

For other unexplained reasons, three inexperienced agents are thrown into the action directly from graduation. There’s some romantic tension between the young male protagonist and an attractive yet tortured older female agent, but this too feels tacked on.

Bear’s reason for writing this novel (as explained in an afterword) was to warn of the dangers of bioterrorism, specifically weaponised anthrax. He deserves credit for portraying Muslim characters with sympathy and understanding, and for crafting an exciting, competently written tale. But in the end it’s obvious he’s a bit out of his depth writing this kind of story.

Monday, 2010-03-15

Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

This is the penultimate book in Erikson’s epic[1] “Malazan Book of the Fallen” cycle. This is the only fantasy cycle I’ve read and enjoyed since… well, the Lord of the Rings. However, Erikson subtly subverts the Manichean worldview of Tolkien and his epigones, introducing a gritty, smelly world of forces in precarious balance. It’s hard to describe, but it’s “realistic” in a way that Robert Jordan’s plastic world isn’t.

It helps that the writing is funny, and that Erikson has a good grip on both anthropology and military tactics.

“Dust of Dreams” is of necessity a cliffhanger, being but the first half of the end of the cycle. After reading this explosive tale I literally cannot wait for the sequel, The Crippled God. Highly recommended.

[1] for once, the word is used unironically.

Monday, 2010-01-11

The “BBC” List

This is what’s been circulating through the more hip and literary Swedish blogs lately (right this minute to be exact). Here’s the premise, which I doubt really is from the BBC (can’t be arsed to Snope it I may be lazy but I’m not that lazy, see below):

The BBC apparently believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. Please copy and paste your bolded books read, italicized books as ”want to read”, and then sum up with a head count, so to speak. What does the list say about your reading habits?

Note the “apparently” weasel-word. This is in fact a list compiled by The Guardian, and it lists the 10 books people can’t live without (or something). More here. Anyway, I don’t need many excuses to flaunt my middle-brow literary tastes.

(As Isobel mentioned, would be fun to see a Swedish version of this list).

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  6. The Bible
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne (in Swedish)
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Score: 33 read, 2 I want to read. Nailed everything by Jane Austen, yet I am secure in my masculinity.

Glad to see Birdsong so high up.

Also, Dan Brown?! Seriously? And where’s Patrick O’Brian?

Monday, 2009-12-07

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Vinge is the poet laureate of the middle Internet era, the one defined by Usenet discussions, but he makes a huge effort in Rainbows End (sic!) to update the tech templates in A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky to something that could be considered modern.

Just like the concept of “identity theft” is unimaginably expanded in Charles Stross’ Glasshouse, the future internet depicted in this book is the web write large, and in many dimensions, and only fully comprehended by kids, the dullest of whom are geniuses compared to their bemused and fearful parents. New forms of warfare have developed, and the tools of terrorism and mayhem are cheaper and cheaper. Parcel delivery is by rail launchers sending packages in ballistic trajectories.

Yet Vinge is not just a soulless nerd and technocrat, he has a real gift in describing the inner lives of his characters (even if his most detailed portraits seem to be of very clever people who have dysfunctional inner lives). Coupled with a clear, uncomplicated prose and a workmanlike pacing and suspense, this makes for an entertaining read which leaves you with a lot of ideas to ponder. Highly recommended!

Friday, 2009-11-20

Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg

A “fixup” of a series of short stories into a novel, describing a Roman Empire that never fell (mostly because the Exodus never occurred, and a Roman citizen in exile engineered the assassination of Muhammed) but that persisted into our time.

An interesting conceit, but one that becomes less believable as the alternative time goes by and the divergence of history increases.

One thing that’s missing is the view of the common people. Are we to believe that the imperial system managed to stay intact (military defeat and occasional palace coups notwithstanding) through over two thousand years?

Anyway, it’s fiction, and well-written and enjoyable fiction at that. Recommended.

Wednesday, 2009-11-11

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

A fun YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk wasteland. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for the sequels!

Monday, 2009-11-09

Giant Lizards From Another Star by Ken MacLeod

A collection of 2 novellas (Cydonia and The Human Front) and some shorter writings by the Scottish SF author. A lot of the influences in later works can be found, especially the left-libertarian politics.

Friday, 2009-10-30

The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon

This is a great book, a very readable overview of the 1930s. It goes into some detail about countries that I knew little about, like France and Japan, and gives a good look at the Spanish Civil War.

It’s striking to see how the twin blows of World War I and the Great Depression dealt the liberal democracies a nearly fatal blow. It’s also sad to see how inevitable war seemed, even quite early on. Fascism, Nazism and Communism were generally untried, and seemed like valid alternatives to the “tired, degenerate” democracies.

And in truth, there was a lot of rot in the US, Great Britain, and maybe especially France. They were slow to react to the needs of their citizens, and understandably very loath to begin a new bloodletting in the same scale as WWI. France especially has been much maligned for its defeatism. But it’s unsure how the Third Republic’s institutions could have dealt with it.

Highly recommended!

Tuesday, 2009-10-06

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

A stunning YA novel about a small child being brought up by ghosts and a vampire in an English graveyard after his family has been murdered. A very warm and pretty scary book. Recommended!

Sunday, 2009-09-27

The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

A well-written and entertaining space opera. Shades of Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road in its description of a future melange of humanity.

Blood Follows by Steven Erikson

A novelette (or novella) “starring” the creepy Bouchelaine and Korbal Broach, the necromancers who make an appearance in Memories of Ice. Illustrated, in a not very convincing way, by Mike Dringenberg.

A nice example of Erikson’s “fantasy noir”.

A Very English Deceit: The South Sea Bubble and the World’s First Great Financial Scandal by Malcolm Balen

A short and interesting overview of the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Balen strews quotes from the dotcom bubble as chapter headings, but there’s no clear-cut connection between the two. If nothing else, the connections between the South Sean the very recent housing bubbles are clearer. Among them, the lack of regulation (due to outright corruption in the older mess) and the presence of very easy credit.

Saturday, 2009-09-19

The City & The City by China Miéville

This is a pretty cool novel, a police procedural (roughly) set in a city that’s split down the middle, where inhabitants of one city literally can’t see the others (even if they’re in the same street) without being hauled off by the mysterious Breach. Daily life if full of unseeing and unhearing things. This makes solving crimes hard, to say the least.

I enjoyed it immensely. Highly recommended.

Miéville spouts off in Scalzi’s Whatever blog here.

Friday, 2009-09-11

Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

This novel was tough going in the middle, where it felt it was too much Tiste Andii moping (seriously those dudes are emo) and not enough action. It sure picked up in the end, and even revealed one of the “bad guys” as semi-sympathetic.

Re-reading Reaper’s Gale while I have the details fresh in my mind!

Sunday, 2009-08-09

The Scarlatti Inheritance by Robert Ludlum

I picked this up in the recycling shelf in our building and wasn’t very impressed. However, it turns out it was Ludlum’s very first novel so I guess I can cut it some slack.

Friday, 2009-08-07

Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross

Stross’ pastiche of late Heinlein. Set in a future where humanity has died out and society continues in the care of humanoid androids (and gynoids, hence a lot of gratutious sex). Stross packs in more ideas per page than many other SF authors, but has a problem in maintaining a coherent plot. Still, a fun read.

Thursday, 2009-07-16

Matter by Iain M. Banks

A novel set in the Culture. Not really a fan of this one. Feels like Banks is re-using a lot of ideas from earlier works. And the shocking revelation was pretty lame (assuming I identified it correctly).

Sunday, 2009-07-12

Vacation reading

Finally finished by re-read of Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle. Next on the list is Bank’s Matter and Erikson’s Toll the Hounds.

Sunday, 2009-05-10

The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

The second of the Laundry novels, this book sees our hero Bob Howard trapped (literally!) in a James Bond plot, complete with supervillian, fluffy white cat, and Cthonic artifacts from beneath the Earth’s crust.

It’s an entertaining read, but Stross isn’t really very good at constructing plots that hang together. There are some lurches in the narrative that are pretty baffling, and most damning of all, it’s not very scary. It’s more a pastisch than a good horror novel.

Wednesday, 2009-04-01

Seeker by Jack McDevitt

There should be a name for that brand of SF where we’re thousands of years in the future, but the society is still just like middle-class America, with FTL ships and AIs. It’s not quotidian. Maybe it’s just lazy.

Peter F. Hamilton also writes in this style, but he does it with far more verve than McDevitt.

The underlying story is fun enough at first, centering around the search for a lost colony lost 6,000 years from the time of the story. But when we reach the end there’s a desperate attempt to lay on the sensawunda with a trowel, leading to a feeling of letdown.

I borrowed this book in a library, for which I am grateful. I would have been mad if I had paid for it.

Tuesday, 2009-03-17

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

When I saw this book at the local library, I snapped it up and then was pretty stressed out I wouldn’t be able to finish it in the four weeks I had lent it. It’s around 900 pages and I’ve read Stephenson before.

Turns out it wasn’t so hard (being sick at home helped). The book is a much easier read than the Baroque Cycle, almost juvenile in its themes and plot.

Anathem is set in an alternative world where the scientists are sequestered in huge monastery-like structures called maths. They are forbidden contact with the outside Seculaer world for one, ten, 100 or 1,000 years, depending on the math. Basically, every smart person ill-at-ease with the outside world (which is a parody of modern America, without culture or science) has the possibility to withdraw to a world of community, self-sufficiency, and pure thought.

Our hero, Erasmas, is a typical guy in these stories. Not too smart, trouble with girls, problems with authority etc. Things happen outside, he and his friends must venture forth to solve the mystery and save the world, yadda yadda.

Stephenson is an entertaining writer, if less so here than in his other books. The ideas in it are inspired by the Long Now Foundation and the interesting problem of how to preserve knowledge for millennia. The central plot point is nice SF too with a lot of giant space engineering involved.

If you’re not put off by huge books, I can recommend this whole-heartedly.

Monday, 2009-02-09

The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount by Gershom Gorenberg

Temple Mount

A great book, detailing the milleniarist dreams and designs on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It’s full of interesting details such as the search for a perfect red heifer (the ashes from its sacrifice will be used to purify the worshipers in the Temple), and the various groups working towards establishing control over the Temple Mount.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 2009-01-09

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared by Andrew Brown

death-387

A brilliant memoir, and a perceptive analysis of modern Sweden. Brown was a young man who married a Swedish woman and moved to Lilla Edet in western Sweden and had a son. After working in a factory he became a journalist and moved back to England. However, he’s returned to Sweden many times. As an avid fly-fisher, he finds Sweden better than England in that respect.

Seeing your country through the eyes of an “foreigner” is a refreshing experience. Brown has a fine eye for certain details in 1970s Sweden (and 80s Britain too) and his very personal story rings with the truth that comes from experience.

Highly recommended.

(Andrew Brown’s blog.)

Sunday, 2008-11-30

Latest haul from Dieselverkstaden

Alan Moore et. al., Top Ten): Book 1, Book 2, The Forty-Niners

Three great graphic novels that combine the pulpy look of classic comics with serious themes. Recommended.

Ken McLeod, The Night Sessions

“Near-future” SF set in a world where the excesses of the “Faith Wars” have led to religion being seriously marginalised. Interesting mix of SF and police procedural, and McLeod’s upbringing in weird Scottish sects gives him a good background, but ultimately not one of his best works.

Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden, Baltimore

Interesting young-adult(?) novel set in the aftermath of an alternate-history Great War. Mignola’s illustrations are excellent. Good stuff if you’re at all a fan of Hellboy.

Monday, 2008-11-10

Books in October/November

Gathered these two reviews in one post.

JPod by Douglas Coupland

This is an updated Microserfs and it really reads like Coupland is just coasting. He tries to darken the white-bread ambience of the earlier book with drugs and people-smuggling but it’s basically the same book with a version bump.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

The CIA’s reputation is already the worse for wear, but this book basically tears any remaining mystique to threads. In hindsight the CIA made many mistakes and the “successes” (Iran in the 50s, Afghanistan in the 80s) came back to haunt them.

What’s lacking from the book is a wider discussion of just why so many covert actions to influence or suborn governments were undertaken, not just by a rogue CIA but by successive presidents. In hindsight going head-to-head with the Soviet Union was rather unnecessary, but few knew that at the time. In part this was due to the CIA being incompetent, but I think it would have added to an understanding of the Cold War.

Sunday, 2008-10-19

Blindsight by Peter Watts

This SF novel has received rave reviews, and it’s not hard to see why. A great first-contact story, it’s also an exploration of consciousness and the theory of mind.

Sometimes it’s tough going, but the reader is rewarded by an astonishing vision of humanity’s place in the universe.

Author’s website is rifters.com.

Sunday, 2008-08-24

Incandescence by Greg Egan

Hard SF about a future race of aliens living on an engineered asteroid orbiting a neutron star at a significant fraction of c. It doesn’t get much harder than that!

A big part of the book is devoted to the aliens trying to make sense of the bizarre orbital mechanics they can observe. This is tedious, as the terms used are the native ones and the explanations are couched in terms that you really need to pay attention to if you want to know what’s going on.

There’s all too many pages of this, and even if the alien society is nicely visualised it’s a hard slog.

Basically, this is one neat idea padded into a novel. Avoid if you’re not a fan of hard SF.

Sunday, 2008-08-03

Reaper’s Gale by Steven Erikson

A most satisfying seventh installment to the Malazan saga. Erikson keeps up the pressure and keeps this massive fantasy tale on track.

Part of Erikson’s greatness is his humour, something that’s sorely lacking from multi-volume fantasy such as Tolkien or Jordan. He’s also pretty good at old-style military engagements, and indeed the entire series can almost be described as “military fantasy”.

Update 2008-08-14: I just re-read Memories of Ice, the first book in the series that I read, even if it’s the third in sequence. It’s amazing how much stuff in the series is foreshadowed.

I’m going to re-read Midnight Tides next!

Wednesday, 2008-07-30

The Mirrored Heavens by David J. Williams

Debut cyberpunk/technothriller from Williams, who’s running an active blog promoting it.

What can I say? I think the ideas are bigger than the novel (I think I first read about it in John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” series). Trad cyberpunk predicts the withering of the nation state, this novel has a more realpolitik feel to it in that the nation states of the US and Russia will never give up power. The future depicted in The Mirrored Heavens is bleak from the outset and gets bleaker from there.

It’s a promising start, lets hope Williams follows it up!

Monday, 2008-07-07

Halting State by Charles Stross

For me, a quick entertaining read, but about as nourishing as a bag of crisps. I’m broadly in agreement with Jonathan McCalmont’s review.

Sunday, 2008-07-06

[SvSe] På resa med Herodotos av Ryszard Kapuścińsky

Kapuścińsky beskriver hur Herodotos Historia följt honom på hans karriär som reporter, från de första trevande stegen i Indien och Kina till hans resor i Afrika och Mellanöstern.

Boken flätar förtjänstfullt samman både bilden av den moderne polske journalisten och hans grekiske inspiratör och i någon mening läromästare. Den är också en bra introduktion till Herodotos verk.

Monday, 2008-06-23

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

I can’t help but feel that this is a previously rejected novel by Reynolds that’s now been exhumed by his publishers in search of a few extra quid.

It’s a half-baked space opera in the Iain M. Banks vein, ranging over the galaxy and across millions of years. It even has some Banksian foreshadowing, hinting at dark and mysterious secrets to come. But nothing comes of this, and there are plenty of other plot strands that are simply left dangling.

The scene setting is amateur, the plot is ludicrous, and the characters are two-dimensional.

Not recommended.

Thursday, 2008-06-19

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

An alternate-history/alternate-universe CIA novel, where a “sheaf” of the multiverse (the “Real” America) has developed technology to access other, parallell universes with different timelines. Being Americans, they can’t resist spreading their version of freedom, happiness and the American Way to every other universe, whether these universes want it or not.

It’s a fascinating story, well told and suspenseful. It’s slightly marred by explicit exposition and some typographic niggles, and the universe-hopping and toime-travelling becomes a mite confusing near the end, but it’s a very good read.

Monday, 2008-06-16

Light by M. John Harrison

A rather weird book. It reads like a throwback to the New Wave of SF, all drug-addled and full of weird human-on-alien sex. The unabashed non-hard elements and post-modern leavening of space opera tells us this is more a stylistic exercise. The plot is something to hang language on.

For all this, it’s a pretty exciting read, even if the amoral actions of the main characters tend to put you off. The parts set in our time are well captured, and contain “mundane” details of whacked-out relationships and issues like anorexia.

I’d recommend this if you don’t have to pay for it.

Thursday, 2008-06-12

Olympos by Dan Simmons

The sequel to Ilium. Highly recommended. Simmons is great around both the prehistory of Homer and his future history. Great use of tension and plenty of sensawunda.

Friday, 2008-06-06

The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

A novel set in the Revelation Space universe. We finally get to see what life in the pre-Plague Glitter Band was like, and this novel does a good job of problematising Utopia.

This setting isn’t as broad as the other novels, but the stakes are typically high.

Not a novel to begin with, but great for Reynolds fans.

Sunday, 2008-05-11

End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Part near-future thriller set in yakusa Japan and Sarf London, part SF set in far-far-far-future Earth, this is a hard book to summarize. The thriller part dominates, and seems to be set 15 years in the future mostly so our hero can have some bad memories from Iraq in his youth. The SF element nearly makes sense, but it’s not an SF novel for beginners.

I’ve read one other novel by Grimwood, Pashazade. This is similar, but at the same time almost completely different. Recommended.

Sunday, 2008-05-04

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

A “last man on earth” story set in a Los Angeles beset by vampires. Very much a Fifties novel. Reading this after World War Z was a bit unfair, the latter is a much better story.

Saturday, 2008-05-03

World War Z by Max Brooks

Subtitled “An Oral History of the Zombie War, this is a fictional account of the war against the plague of the undead that’s due to engulf us in about 4 years.

Riveting and horrific.

Update 2008-05-08: John Walker has a more extensive review.

Friday, 2008-05-02

Black Man by Richard K. Morgan

A superlative noir near-future SF thriller. I haven’t enjoyed a book like this for a long time. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2008-04-29

Idlewild by Nick Sagan

More a novella than a full novel. Starts with a bunch of kids stuck in a VR education simulation but the near-future high-school drama soon morphs into something much darker.

Monday, 2008-04-14

Spook Country by William Gibson

Cover of the novel "Spook Country"

Spook Country got some negative reviews, and even though I’d been looking forward to it a long time (Gibson is one of my “read-anything” authors) I decided to wait a bit before buying it. I snatched it up at the library and enjoyed it.

A few people have remarked that Gibson’s stories are pretty shallow and uninteresting, but the point his novels is not the plot, it’s his descriptions of places, people and things. The plot is a meta-MacGuffin that serves the purpose of getting the protagonists to new places where they can fondle shiny new things. These are descriped in the trademark Gibson style.

This book is more of the same. Read it if you like Gibson, skip it if you don’t.

Friday, 2008-04-11

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

A fun satire but pretty poor SF. I think the fragmented societies of Ken MacLeod (Star Fraction) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) are more likely than this future ruled by giant corporations. The government is privatised as there are no taxes. The dirty secret is that without taxes, a huge chunk of “private” enterprise will go bust: military, parts agriculture. Big Capitalism is as addicted to the state as “welfare” recipients.

Wednesday, 2008-04-09

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

I was really looking forward to this book, but can’t help but being disappointed. MacLeod’s first foray into techno-thriller territory starts out well. It’s a chilling portrayal of a paranoid post-9/11 Britain. But after a while you recognise the backstory, it’s the same setup as in the Fall Revolution series, with bits from Engines of Light and even Newton’s Wake thrown in. In the end it gets really SF-y, and not in a good way.

In short, I’ve read better MacLeod novels.

Sunday, 2008-04-06

Good library for SF

Cover of the novel "The Execution Channel"

I had an errand to the local concentration of stores (Sickla Köpkvarter) and looked into the library in Dieselverkstaden, a centre for performance and art. It’s a little oasis for the velour and DN På Stan-reading set, in the middle of a desert of crass commercialism.

Anyway, the library was very well stocked with quality SF. I quickly snagged MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, Gibson’s Spook Country, and Jennifer Government by Max Barry.

This is nice because I’ve come to the realisation that 99% of the books I read aren’t really worth owning. Most of Stockholm’s libraries have an SF shelf but this was the best I’ve seen for a while.

Friday, 2008-02-08

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

I really enjoyed this book. Raban buys a boat and circumnavigates England, Scotland and Wales. The book is written in the early 80s, so the Falklands War, the miners strike and the beginning of the Thatcher era are observed from a position out at sea.

This is a view of an England (for Raban touches mostly in England, and the Isle of Man) in transition, lost in the change between manufacturing and fishing and the new “service economy” and tourism.

It’s a wise, compassionate book, mixing travel writing and memoir. I’ll definitely try to read more by Raban in the future.

Saturday, 2007-11-10

Mountains of The Mind: A History of a Fascination by Robert Macfarlane

This is simply wonderful book. Part mountain climbing memoir, part cultural history that charts the growing Western fascination for mountains.

A centrepiece is a fascinating account of George Mallory’s obsession with Mount Everest. The chapters are a culmination of the preceding book, showing how the changing perceptions of mountains formed Mallory, and how his death in turn shaped those perceptions.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 2007-09-21

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What it says on the tin. All the classic stories.

It’s a pity Conan Doyle didn’t manage to keep Holmes dead after the first collection of stories, because the quality went down quite a bit the more he wrote.

Monday, 2007-08-27

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

A juvenile novel set in the Discworld universe.

Snagged it from the local library. Pratchett is always entertaining.

The Black Death by Philip Ziegler

A layman’s history of the great plague epidemic in 1348. The first chapters are very interesting. The middle of the book bogs down in a detailed history of the plague’s progress through England. It’s relieved by a chapter about the impact on a fictional village.

The book is from 1969, I bought it some years ago and re-read it now, inspired by a radio show I heard about the impact of the Black Death on the recruitment of clerics to the Catholic church.

Tuesday, 2007-07-31

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

An entertaining fantasy in which dragons are used as military vehicles in early nineteenth century Europe. Implausibly, everything else (the UK, Napoleonic France, sailing navies) is unchanged. This seems pretty unlikely as according to the backstory, dragons had been used in war since the Crusades. I’m thinking that if dragons existed alongside humans they’d fundamentally change human society, especially since they have intelligence on par with humans.

However, this means that Novik can write a mix of Austen, Patrick O’Brian, and probably oodles of dragon fantasies which seems to be a distinct subgenre of mainstream fantasy. It’s a good job, and an cracking read.

Wednesday, 2007-07-25

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

I must confess I read this in one sitting, staying up until 5:30 in the morning to see how it ended. It’s a satisfying end to a long story, and although most loose ends were tied there were a lot left dangling.

Now I can venture onto the Interwebs free of the fear of spoilers.

In the Eye of Heaven by David Keck

This book could almost be called realist fantasy. It’s a world that’s very like the European Middle ages, with none of the nasty bits edited out. There’s blood, guts, lice, forbidden love between liegemen and ladies, and the oaths and fealties that bind lord and vassal have literally divine sanction. Break them and all Hell breaks loose.

This world is believable in a way that many other fantasy worlds are not. It’s a far cry from Robert Jordan’s plasticky universe, if not in the class of Steven Erikson’s multi-layered mythos.

A bonus: the book is self-contained and not obviously part of a series.

Sunday, 2007-07-08

Pushing Ice by Alistair Reynolds

A crew of asteroid miners are ordered to investigate a self propelled moon and are whisked far, far away.

Most of the story is about the personal rivalries between factions of the crew, but there are generous helpings of hard-SF sense-of-wonder too. Some wonderfully disgusting aliens make a cameo appearance near the end.

This was a quick read. Like most of Reynold’s books, it’s not really a very good book by literary standards, but there are lots of nice ideas and images in it.

Thursday, 2007-06-07

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

Another quick read. I’m not sure I think Stross is that great a writer, actually. But he can weave an entertaining tale.

However, a lot of the themes are repurposed from his previous novel Iron Sunrise, and even though the universes are different it still feels like they are too similar.

Wednesday, 2007-06-06

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Hit the SF bookstore in Gamla stan and picked this up today. Read it between 2 o’clock and half an hour ago, thus, a quick read.

Not really as good as Old Man’s War but still entertaining.

Tuesday, 2007-05-01

Out on Blue Six

I remember Ian McDonald’s Out on Blue Six as a pretty good novel, and apparently Cory Doctorow agrees.

I think I packed that book for sending off to charity and I’m debating whether I should rescue it. But I think I’ll leave it. Let someone else find it and hopefully enjoy it as much.

Friday, 2007-04-13

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

Read this while on Easter holiday. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, 2007-03-13

Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Awesome book. There so much common sense in here it should be illegal.

The most important lesson to gather from this book is that your employees (if they’re knowledge workers, but who isn’t in this day and age?) are an asset, and not just an expense. In the information age you don’t invest in machines and buildings, you invest in attracting and retaining the best people. Putting these people in offices that are cramped and not conductive to knowledge work is like not taking care of your machines or buildings — you’re effectively destroying capital.

Sunday, 2007-02-25

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Uneasy blend of SF and fantasy, with some rock-and-roll thrown in. Reads like the basis for a fantasy RPG sometimes.

Monday, 2007-02-19

The Descent by Jeff Long

Religously-tinged SF horror about a race of proto-hominids existing deep beneath the surface of the Earth. A page-turner.

The Terror and other stories by Arthur Machen

A collection of “weird” tales from the beginning of the twentieth century. Flavours of Saki.

Monday, 2007-02-12

Into the Looking Glass by John Ringo

Military SF from Baen Books. Reminiscent of David Weber, the same glorification of weapons and the military and the same right-wing outlook. The characters are not entirely one-dimensional though.

Sunday, 2007-02-11

Reliquary by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Schlock I’m glad I borrowed from the library and didn’t pay for. Slightly entertaining nonetheless.

Thursday, 2007-02-08

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

A riff on Starship Troopers with some elements of The Forever War. Good writing and great humour. Can’t wait to buy the sequel(s).

Tuesday, 2007-02-06

Many are the Crimes by Ellen Schrecker

A history of the anti-communist movement in forties-fifties USA.

Tuesday, 2007-01-23

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alistair Reynolds

Two novellas from Reynold’s Revelation space universe.

Monday, 2007-01-08

Slaget om Kursk by Anders Frankson & Niklas Zetterling

A short history of the World War II battle of Kursk in 1943.

Monday, 2006-12-11

Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard

This book felt like Leonard wrote it with one hand tied behind his back. The redeeming feature was the excellent narration by Paul Rudd.

Wednesday, 2006-11-29

The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

Subtitled A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, this is a very good book about the modern realities of maritime transport and law enforcement. Langewieshe’s thesis is that the oceans, by their very size, are natural havens for shady types like pirates, unscrupulous shipowners and ineffectual regulators.

He writes about shipwrecks, piracy, and the shipbreaking industry in India and Bangladesh. Central to the book is the sinking of the passenger ferry Estonia, a wound that has not yet healed in Sweden. He shows how most landlubbers will rather indulge in conspiracy theories to explain the accident, instead of accepting that the sea is a very dangerous place, and that shore-based attempts to impose order are inherently doomed to fail.

This audiobook was read by the author, which worked well.

Sunday, 2006-11-12

Sahara by Michael Palin.

Audiobook.

Palin recounts his travels around the Sahara filming for the BBC. He’s a good author and narrator, and conveys a good picture throughout the book of the country and the people.

Saturday, 2006-08-05

The First World War by Hew Strachan

Yet another history. This focuses in large part on the global aspects of the war, in addition to trying to explaining the conflict in terms that the combatants understood — the conflict between liberalism and authoritatism. In the author’s view, the war wasn’t fought for meaningless reasons, and he asserts that the later view of it as a senseless carnage is a product of poets and authors writing during the 1920’s.

Tuesday, 2006-07-25

[SvSe] Sanningen är en sällsynt gäst av Lars Borgnäs

Boken handlar om Catrine da Costa-fallet från 1984. Utgångspunkten är den mediakampanj som bedrevs kring 2000 för att dom båda läkarna skulle få upprättelse. Men ju mer Borgnäs gräver i fallet desto mer märkliga omständigheter finnar han.

Han är mycket kritisk mot Leif GW Persson som på egen hand bestämt sig att läkarna måste vara oskyldiga. Men enligt Borgnäs pekar många spår, inte bara i Catrine-fallet, mot Obducenten. Persson och Guillou gjorde allt i sin makt att peka polisen åt helt andra håll, med stora konsekvenser för dom oskyldiga som råkade komma i vägen.

Monday, 2006-07-03

Learning the World by Ken MacLeod

A generation starship approaches a system after a 400 year voyage, intent on colonising the asteroid belt and pushing off again. They are shocked to discover the first alien intelligent life encountered during humanity’s 15,000-year expansion.

A nicely done novel, especially the fact that the aliens are more “human” (closer to us) than our putative descendants. Also a good treatment of the generation ship problem: how do you ensure a stable population over a voyage spanning centuries? The answer: genetic engineering and late-stage capitalism, with the “founders” investing in the ventures of the colonising “ship generation”.

Sunday, 2006-07-02

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

A blend of the spy thriller with H.P. Lovecraft, mixed with IT life satire.

Thursday, 2006-06-29

The Engines of Light trilogy by Ken MacLeod

  • Cosmonaut Keep
  • Dark Light
  • Engine City

Nice blend of science fiction and politics from the master himself.

Tuesday, 2006-06-27

Woken Furies by Richard Morgan

I actually finished this last week, but I’ve been planning a longish review since before the weekend. Now I’m actually writing I can’t say much other than that this is a really good book if you like cyberpunk flavoured noir — and who doesn’t?

Here’s my review of Altered Carbon. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the second book in the trilogy, Broken Angels, soon.

Monday, 2006-06-05

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

This is the latest installment in Erikson’s epic, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. This dense work benefits from an incremental approach where you read and re-read the previous books over and over again to try to catch all the details and nuances. Luckily, the books are so well-written that this is not a chore at all.

The Malazan universe is exceedingly complex, with new gods, forms of magic, and undead pre-humanoid species turning up every few books. Sometimes they have the appearance of dei ex machinae, but it doesn’t matter that much.

This book is the sixth in a ten-part series, I’m sure Erikson will be able to keep things up for the concluding four. Until then I’ll re-read Memories of Ice again.

Saturday, 2006-05-27

Three books

I finished three books this long weekend, capsule reviews follow.

The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe.

Apparently 2 novels, The Knight and The Wizard, I read this tome in trade paperback and got a sore back for my pains. Only thing wrong with this book, which is vintage Wolfe. Echoes of the Torturer series, this is in a classic fairytale setting with knights and princesses and elfs, but with a few twists. Our hero grows to be a man in a night, battles giants and dragons, dies and goes to Valhalla, returns to claim his queen. Great stuff.

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks.

What it says on the tin. Worried about the plague of undead coming to eat your flesh? This book tells you what to do before, during, and after an outbreak of zombies in your neighborhood. Also contains tips for surviving the apocalypse of an Earth dominated by the living dead.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett takes on the military and adds a twist to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” meme.

Sunday, 2006-05-07

Giving up

I usually try my hardest to finish all the books I start, but I had to cry Uncle! at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I’m sure fans of early English fantasy and stories about fairies will find this pastiche delightful. It doesn’t cut it for me.

Instead I started on Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight. Much better so far.

Saturday, 2006-05-06

Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks

Subtitled “A Codemaker’s War, 1941—1945”, a memoir of work in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II. Well worth the read.

The title refers to the author’s offer to his superiors: either code pages printed on hard-to-obtain silk were issued to agents, or they would have to use their cyanide tablets.

Tuesday, 2006-05-02

Restoration by Tim Harris

A book about the political background of the Restoration. Mostly interesting for the origin of the Whig and Tory parties in British politics.

Monday, 2006-03-20

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson

This is a re-read. Not as good as the earlier novels but Gibson is still a master of his own kind of tech-distilled noir style.

Saturday, 2006-02-18

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld novel dealing with the evils of organised religion. Readable, but I’ve read funnier stuff.

Tuesday, 2006-01-31

Pashazade: The First Arabesk by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

A nice reinvention of the cyberpunk genre, set in alternate-future Ottoman Alexandria.

The author’s site is here.

[…] Things only started to unravel in the sixth [year] when I decided there was nothing wrong with my school that couldn’t be cured with a sub-machine gun and unlimited ammunition […]

Sunday, 2006-01-22

The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

A fantasy novel about a ne’er-do-well musician in San Fransisco who’s life is turned upside down when he’s attacked by a being from the parallell universe of Faerie. Naturally his destiny is much grander than he thought…

Well written like all William’s books. The beginning is near social-realism — our hero loses his unborn child in a miscarriage, his girlfriend, and his mother to cancer in the first few chapters. This sets the tone for the rest of the book and removes any inconvenient characters that may mess up the path of destiny.

A classic public library book: something you’re delighted to find in the shelves but won’t pay for in the store.

Thursday, 2006-01-12

The Complete New Yorker on your hard drive

Mr. Jalopy mentions that you can store the contents of the Complete New Yorker on your hard drive. (I got this link from BoingBoing.)

However, the mention is a bit sketchy.

What you have to do is update the table Issues in the SQLite database used by the application. A value of 9 in the field DiskID means hard drive. The rest of the IDs refer to the different disks.

I didn’t notice this, but the very first issue is on the hard drive, which gave anyone with some nous a clue about how this stuff works. If you look in the “Issues” folder of the intallation folder you’ll see a file called 1925_02_21.djvu. This is the first issue.

So you have to copy all the *.djvu files from the separate DVDs (located in the “Issues” folder there) to the “Issues” folder on the harddrive, then update the database.

Warning: I take no responsibility for any stuff that may happen to your installation if you follow these instructions. This said, I believe that if you mess up, you can reinstall the app.

You have to install a SQLite client. I use Cygwin and downloaded the source, compiled and installed. There are precompiled Windows binaries, that I suppose can be used from the Windows command prompt. Mr. Jalopy mentions a graphical application on the internet.

The file you use is ny-sqlite-3.db. Making a backup of this file is a good idea.

$ /usr/local/bin/sqlite3.exe ny-sqlite-3.db

There are two ways to approach this.

Brute force

Simply copy every single file from every DVD to your harddrive. This is a good approach if you have the space (around 50 GB). When you’ve done that, simply run

sqlite> update Issues set DiskID = 9 where DiskID <> 9;

Now all your issues are available from the harddrive.

Disk by Disk

If you don’t have the space, like me, maybe two or three disks will be enough. You’ll have to find which issues are on which disk and update the Issues table accordingly.

Here’s how to find which years have a specific DiskID:

sqlite> select  min(Year), max(Year), DiskID from Issues
        group by DiskID order by min(Year);

Below are the contents of my database.

  • Hard drive: 9
  • DVD 1 (1998—2004): 8
  • DVD 2 (1984—1997): 4
  • DVD 3 (1974—1983): 7
  • DVD 4 (1965—1973): 2
  • DVD 5 (1957—1964): 6
  • DVD 6 (1948—1956): 1
  • DVD 7 (1937—1947): 5
  • DVD 8 (1925—1936): 3

To move DVD 3 to the harddrive, copy all the files, then run

sqlite> update Issues set DiskID = 9 where DiskID = 7;

More SQLite tips

To see the contents of the database:

sqlite> .tables

To see the structure of a specific table:

sqlite> .schema <table>

Update 2006-01-13: I got a mention on BoingBoing. Also, Nick posted an update on how to do this on a Mac, including moving the files to another location! Wow, wish I had symlinks on this OS…

Update 2006-03-02: I got a mention on Securityfocus. The whole article is great, it really points out the absurdity of DRM:

If the goal is just to frustrate users, then why use DRM at all, since you must realize that un-DRM’d copies of your materials are going to circulate? And even if Joe can’t break the DRM, he’ll eventually figure out how to use a P2P network, or ask his nerd friend for help, and then you’ve got another unauthorized copy and an upset and now more knowledgeable former customer. What publisher wants that?

Thanks to all the commenters with their tips and tricks on getting this to work on various hardware and software platforms.

Update 2008-05-13: The instructions on how to make this work on a Mac were in a comment that disappeared when I moved to another commenting system. Here are the instructions:

Here is how to do it on a Mac (at least, this is what I did), including putting the files on a separate drive from the Application.

  1. Installed sqlite3 using Fink.
  2. Copied all the Issues files from the DVD’s to my spare hard drive.
  3. Ran the sqlite commands as described above - note that the ny-sqlite-3.db file is located in /Library/Application Support/The New Yorker, as is the Issues folder.
  4. Copied the contents of /Library/Application Support/The New Yorker/Issues to the Issues folder on my spare drive.
  5. Made a soft link from /Library/Application Support/The New Yorker/Issues to my copy of Issues (note that an alias in the finder did not work - I had to create the soft link on the commandline).
  6. Voila! Speedy New Yorker with no DVD swapping.

Saturday, 2006-01-07

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to, and was a really good one. Stephen Fry’s narration is brilliant, lending colour and excitement to a very long, episodic book. What the scriptwriters of the film adaptation will do to ensure that the film isn’t over four hours long, I don’t know.

Monday, 2006-01-02

More on the Complete New Yorker

I’ve approached the Complete New Yorker with some trepidation. How do you make a dent in 50 gigabytes of scanned material?

Then I remember John McPhee, one of my favourite non-fiction authors. His style is unique, really good. I’ve read Looking for a Ship and Basin and Range and would really like to read The Curve of Binding Energy (if only for the beautiful title.)

McPhee writes for the New Yorker, and sure enough, a search for his name yielded hundreds of articles. I’ll be reading them in spare moments in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, 2005-12-28

Chasm City by Alistair Reynolds

A re-read.

The first Reynolds novel I read, but not the best. The parts on the generation starship are well-written though, but the steampunk ambience in Chasm City isn’t as interesting.

Saturday, 2005-12-24

House of Chains by Steven Erikson

The fourth book in the Malazan series.

Sunday, 2005-12-11

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

The second part of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

Thursday, 2005-12-08

Century Rain by Alistair Reynolds

This book rests on a central premise, that an alternate 1959 Earth has been preserved like a fly in amber by some all-powerful aliens. In the far future, two warring factions of humanity stumble upon it and use the artifacts there to complement the forgotten history of the Nanocaust.

Reynolds skilfully weaves together “hard” S-F with a Simenon-like detective story. But if you ignore the technical mastery and the skillful plotting, the story is basically absurd. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. I stayed up until one in the morning yesterday to finish it.

Monday, 2005-12-05

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

This is a re-read.

It’s hard to describe what’s so good with Erikson’s writing and universe. Perhaps it’s the gnarly texture of the world,the pervasiveness of magic accessible to most people, the sweat, the blood, the many-layered mythologies…

I was lucky to get Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains at the library, I’ll be re-reading them as soon as I finish with Century Rain.

Update 2006-06-12: re-read it again.

Friday, 2005-12-02

Top 20 geek novels

The Guardian lists the top 20 geek novels. I’ve read all but four three:

  • Watchmen — Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons — can’t remember when I read this but it was about when the movie came out.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land — Robert Heinlein
  • The Illuminatus! Trilogy — Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
  • Trouble with Lichen - John Wyndham

Can’t say I’ve read all of Brave New World either.

Of the rest, I find it nice to see Bank’s Consider Phlebas on the list, although of course Use of Weapons is much better.

Monday, 2005-11-28

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

A new installment in the Malazan series, this moves the action to a wholly different part of the world? universe? — it’s not clear. It’s been a while since I read the preceding book, and my grasp of all the different races, gods, and demons is a bit shaky, but I’m pretty sure we haven’t encountered the Tiste Edur in detail before.

They are an agricultural people about to be conquered by the rapacious Letherii, whose society is like a caricature of our own Western society. But all is not as it seems, as the closest this series has to a figure of pure evil, the Fallen God, has other plans…

A good read as usual with Erikson.

Sunday, 2005-11-06

Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton

Feh. There should be a warning printed on this 1,144 page book:

This is the first book in a series

Dunno if I’ll buy the sequel. Hamilton is a capable wordsmith, and the plot moves along at a respectable clip. But the surface is a bit too polished, the characters a bit too much like cardboard.

scifi.com says:

This is the type of book that publicists call “epic” that others might less charitably describe as “bloated.” […] An editorial pruning might have put this prospective doorstop on more people’s “to read” lists.

Thursday, 2005-10-27

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip José Farmer

Today, this kind of book would be called a mashup.

A little bagatell, as we say in Sweden.

Tuesday, 2005-10-25

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

An S-F novel not set in Bank’s Culture universe. Has good sense-of-wonder factors, but the characters seem a bit cardboard-like for Banks.

Thursday, 2005-10-20

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

Well, the trilogy is done. It was never boring, but it takes a good writer to keep the reader hooked for three thousand pages. Stephenson does a good but not stellar job.

Update: the books are frequently funny, but not often laugh-out-loud funny. The following passage made me lol though. The hero, Daniel Waterhouse, and Sir Isaac Newton are meeting with an informer in the pub of the Newgate prison, called the Black Dogg:

The Black Dogg was not the sort of tavern that contained a great deal of furniture — patrons either stood, or lay on the floor. There was a bar, of course, in the literal sense of a bulwark erected between the prisoners and the gin. This was now a palisade of burning tapers. […]

Tuesday, 2005-09-06

From Cape to Cape

Calle sent a tip about a pal of his who made the journey from Cape Town to Nordkap in a 15-year old Land Rover with his wife and 3-month old son. He’s written a book Kapstaden till Nordkap på 333 dagar (in Swedish), which I’m hearby giving some linklove.

My friend Bastian made the journey from Cairo to the Cape some years ago, as did Paul Theroux, but they travelled alone without kids in diapers.

Sunday, 2005-08-28

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Well, that was a hard slog. I’ll be reading The System of the World next, because The Confusion picked up considerably two-thirds of the way through, and also I’ve already payed for it. But I can’t say the trilogy is Stephenson’s best effort.

Sunday, 2005-07-31

Finally started

I’ve finally started reading Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion. Its had “reading” status on my reading list since July 9. Instead of reading it however, I’ve read some old issues of the New York Review of Books, the Economist, and Patrick O’Brian’s Blue at the Mizzen.

Update: now a fourth of the way in, and it’s heavy going. Quicksilver was a damn sight more action-packed.

Tuesday, 2005-07-26

Tolkien yesterday, Rowling today

Edmund Wilson’s review of the Lord of the Rings, published in 1956, could almost be about the Harry Potter series today. Especially this gem:

Now, how is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes [from some people]? The answer is, I believe, that certain people - especially, perhaps, in Britain - have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure. You can see it in the tone they fall into when they talk about Tolkien in print: they bubble, they squeal, they coo; they go on about Malory and Spenser - both of whom have a charm and a distinction that Tolkien has never touched.

Admittedly, Harry Potter is written for children/”young adults”. But the series still seems to attract a wide audience, just like Tolkien. In my not so humble opinion, I still find Tolkien better than HP, but that’s perhaps because I was younger when I read LOTR for the first time.

Which leads to another thought: how will my son be able to appreciate HP when he’s older? The whole series is being exploited in real time, with the movies more or less following on the heels of the books. How can he create an internal representation of the HP universe when Warner Bros have served it up like a McDonalds meal already?

Wednesday, 2005-07-20

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Yawn, yet another HP adventure. This was better plotted than the last, but still not really a good book.

Tuesday, 2005-07-19

The Family Trade by Charles Stross

A “hard fantasy” novel, containing some nice ideas (really only one idea, but the ramifications are well thought out). Well written, if a bit confusing at times. As it’s fantasy, of course this is just the first novel in a series… sigh. I’ll perhaps pick up the next book when it arrives in paperback.

Sunday, 2005-07-17

More summer reading

  • Patrick O’Brian, The Hundred Days
  • Bruce Sterling, The Zenith Angle
  • Charles Stross, Iron Sunrise

Sunday, 2005-07-10

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

A mix between The Secret History and (I guess, I haven’t read it) The Da Vinci Code. Not bad at all.

Saturday, 2005-07-09

Summer books

These are the books I read during my two weeks vacation on the west coast of Sweden.

Four novels by Patrick O’Brian:

  • The Nutmeg of Consolation
  • Clarissa Oakes
  • The Wine-Dark Sea
  • The Commodore

In my opinion, The Thirteen-Gun Salute is the last really good Aubrey-Maturin novel.

  • Mike Bryan, Dogleg Madness
  • Carl Hiassen, Skinny Dip
  • Charles Stross, Accelerando

Wednesday, 2005-06-01

Mundane SF

WTF?

The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

  • Men at Arms
  • Officers and Gentlemen
  • Unconditional Surrender

Based on Waugh’s own experiences in World War 2, this is a funny — and grim — trilogy about the death of Honour and the birth of the base modern age.

Reading list

Wednesday, 2005-05-18

Swallows and Amazons, a series by Arthur Ransome

Whew! I just completed an extended trip down memory lane. I last read them in my early teens, but still remember nearly all the plots.

  • Swallows and Amazons: the first book.

  • Swallowdale: the arch-nemesis of the Amazons, the Great Aunt, makes her first appearance.

  • Peter Duck: my battered Puffin paperback was liberated from the school library in Kuala Lumpur. It’s marked

HIGHGATE HILL PRIMARY SCHOOL
HQ KUALA LUMPUR GARRISON
c/o G.P.O. KUALA LUMPUR

The last date is 16.10.75. As we didn’t move to KL until 1977, I’m guessing this book was sold out or given away.

  • Winter Holiday: the D’s, Dick and Dorothea, make their appearance.

  • Coot Club: a favourite.

  • Pigeon Post: a bit different from what I remember. I focused a lot more on Dick back then, guess it was identification with him.

  • We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea: a great book.

  • Secret Water. Not one of my favourites.

  • The Big Six: classic juvenile detective story

  • Missee Lee: a swashbuckling tale involving a female pirate chief with a passion for Latin. Our heroes are forced to endure that fate worse than death: lessons in the holidays. The shiftless youngest, Roger, unexpectedly shines as a Latin scholar. Mildly racist in a 30s kind of way.

  • The Picts and the Martyrs: an interesting book. The premise is that in order to be nice to Mrs. Blackett, the D’s have to be “naughty” and live in the woods, cooking their own food and generally having a typical S&A-type adventure. This is because the dreaded Great Aunt would blow up if she found them living with the Amazons. Interesting juxtaposition of morals here.

  • Great Nothern?: early eco-friendly children’s literature. The setting is in the Scottish Highlands, which lends it another flavour than the Lake District or the Broads. I thought I likes this book better than I actually did.

Tuesday, 2005-04-19

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

I’m taking a break from O’Brian for a while. This book marks the end of my collection of WW Norton paperbacks, which are larger than the editions from Harper Collins that follow. Someday I can afford to replace them all with hardcovers.

Saturday, 2005-04-16

Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail, by Bernard Ireland

A coffee-table book with lavish illustrations. Capsule histories of the period from 1756 to 1815 and beyond are interspersed with more general pieces about sailship tech and handling. Nice reading for an O’Brian nut. Recommended if you don’t have to pay for it — borrow it from your local library, like I did.

Thursday, 2005-04-14

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

Another one of my favourites within the series.

Here we first make our acquaintance with Andrew Wray, who will succeed Admiral Harte as Jack and Stephen’s bête noir in the coming novels.

Sunday, 2005-04-10

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian

Fourth book in the series. In my memory, rather drab (maybe because it’s based on fact, not pure fiction). But very well written, like all O’Brian’s books.

Looking for a replacement for my missing HMS Surprise, I see that the ghouls at WW Norton have published the first three chapters of the last book O’Brian was writing before his death. I’m torn whether I should get it too. I really need to rejoin the Gunroom and ask the opinion of the denizens there, but I really don’t have time to keep up with the flood of mail right now.

Saturday, 2005-04-09

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

The most Austinesque of the series. Perhaps the best.

Unfortunately, I can’t locate the next book, HMS Surprise, which is a pity, as it’s my favourite.

Thursday, 2005-04-07

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

I’m re-reading the Aubrey-Maturin series, also known as the Canon.

Saturday, 2005-04-02

Down and out in the early Nineties

Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland.

This is Coupland’s second novel, and the first by him that I read, back in the day, when the Nineties were young (it’s written in 1992). I don’t think I’ve read Generation X in the original.

Like all Coupland’s early novels, this is an amusing read.

Monday, 2005-03-28

Holiday reading

Quick work was done of the following works this long weekend.

Newton’s Wake, by Ken Macleod.

Classic space opera. Less well-plotted than the author’s other novels. This feels more of a collection of cool ideas and scenarios (how do you get an artifact off a planet that’s smack-dab in the output of a pulsar?) than a real novel. MacLeod’s trademark politics is not really to be seen.

Ares Express, by Ian MacDonald.

Set in the same universe as the Hundred Years of Solitude pastiche Desolation Road, this is more of the same Martian future — anarchist, caste-ridden, and filled with BIG trains. A nice read if you don’t have to pay for it.

Zeitgeist, by Bruce Sterling.

A re-read. An extended riff on pop music and the seamy underbelly of the last days of the twentieth century. Rather light-weight, but filled with Sterling’s trademark zany descriptions. No characters actually exist, as they all talk in exactly the same way. That is, like Sterling himself.

Wednesday, 2005-03-23

Men and angels

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

The first part of Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”. Interesting read. I may be older, but the religious themes are stronger here than in the Narnia books. Nice demolishing of a pro-colonialist straw man in the final chapters.

Sunday, 2005-03-20

Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld novel.

Saturday, 2005-03-19

Not aging well

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: a Trilogy in Five Parts, by Douglas Adams.

Some books simply don’t age along with you. When I first read the first two books in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series in high school, they were the funniest books I’ve ever read (even in Swedish translation, which is excellent). Now, however, the lustre is gone.

Also, the last novel (Mostly Harmless) ends very strangely. Lots of loose ends…

I re-read this to freshen my memory of the books in anticipation of the upcoming movie. I think that it the movie is “Terry-Gilliamised” — I could totally see a movie in the same vein as Time Bandits — it should be a huge success. There’s a lot of action in the books, and you can get a pretty good movie by boiling them down to an hour-and-a-half of script.

Oh, and I finally grokked the meaning of SubEthaEdit

Friday, 2005-03-11

Spy stories

The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein.

A rather dry, factual account of Soviet espionage in the US around the Second World War.

Many interesting stories, presented in a workmanlike style. Spying as a not very exciting vocation. Non-judgemental, though. The Soviet operatives were just doing their jobs, so to speak. But the price paid by the agents was sometimes very heavy.

Thursday, 2005-03-10

Minor classics

The Minority Report and other stories, by Philip K. Dick.

Dick is perhaps the only pulp-era SF writer who’s been absorbed by the US academe. These stories are short and rather political, with plenty of Cold War paranoia and nuclear holocaust angst to fuel them.

Sunday, 2005-02-13

Being gone

Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland.

I read this book in about 24 hours, a very enjoyable read. Like William Gibson’s, Coupland’s prose is fluid and nearly frictionless, and he relies on this property to slip the reader effortlessly through plots that are thin and rather silly.

Like Microserfs, Miss Wyoming offers glimpses into the incubators of popular culture — in this case: Hollywood. But unlike his depiction of hackers in love, his LA cast seems cardboard-like. The central protagonist’s history of drug and sex abuse are alluded to, but seem tacked on, not part of his character at all. And the eponymous Miss Wyoming is a blank slate, an impossibly naif ex-beauty queen who’s words of wisdom are not hers at all, but transparently the author’s.

Enjoyable read, none the less.

Thursday, 2005-02-10

End of an era

The Last Grain Race, by Eric Newby.

18-year old Eric Newby signs on as an apprentice on the barque Moshulu in 1938, bound for Australia for grain. His middle-class background contrasts with the Finns and Ålanders serving alongside him in the fo’csle of this last example of a sailing merchant ship. With humour and warmth he tells the tale of sailing round Africa to Australia and back via Cape Horn.

A great read, like all books by Newby.

Saturday, 2005-02-05

“The only methodology is common sense”

The Pragmatic Programmer by A. Hunt and D. Thomas.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The authors advocate a pragmatic approach to developing software: use what works. Don’t get bogged down in methodologies, communicate effectively, test ruthlessly.

The edition I read was pretty Unix-centric, which is fine by me. But if you’re working in a MS environment you might be forgiven for being mystified by Makefiles and Emacs.

I myself enjoy using Emacs for day-to-day editing, but I think a well-designed IDE can leverage a language in way that a text editor cannot. MS Visual Studio.NET was very nice, and the authors talk a lot about the browsers available in the Smalltalk world. There are advantages in both approaches. I’d rather write documentation in Emacs than in Word, for example.

I’ve been inspired to use a few of the principles expounded in the book in this very weblog. For example:

  • The DRY principle (“Don’t repeat yourself). Earlier I had a list of links in the sidebar that was duplicated in my Bloglines setup. So I wrote a script that fetches my blogroll from Bloglines and puts it in its own post. Now I only have to maintain my blog links in one place. The same principle applies to my reading list and the data of what I’ve listened to on Audioscrobbler.

  • Decoupling. I’m trying to keep the internal links of this weblog consistent and decoupled from the current implementation (i.e., that it’s situated on http://gerikson.com/blog. That way I can set it up somewhere else with little or no effort. (This is in no way a vote of non-confidence in the allaboutsymbian.com team who very generously let me have some space on their server. It’s just that I’m planning on getting my own server sometime and I want to be prepared for that eventuality.)

Sunday, 2005-01-30

A year of reviews

The New York Review of Books, vol. LI.

The NYRB is always interesting. I usually find two or three articles that are worth reading, but I try to slog through all of them. As it’s my father’s subscription, I usually read two or three when I visit my parent’s. After Christmas I grabbed all the issues for 2004, and I’ve been reading them since then.

Reading a whole volume does get a little tedious, however. The paper is pretty topical, so there was a lot of election coverage. Some things, like Abu Graib or Michael Massig’s indictment of the American press on their toadying coverage of Bush’s casus belli retain their topicality still. Others feel more dated.

I’ve added some books to the reading list based on the reviews.

Thursday, 2004-12-30

Victory’s handmaiden

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda by John Keegan.

A series of case studies on the use of intelligence in warfare. Mostly centered around WW2. The Al-Qaeda reference seems a later add-on to boost sales.

Wednesday, 2004-12-22

Brain candy

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett.

A Discworld novel. ‘Nuff said.

Sunday, 2004-12-19

Learning to hate the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age by Margot A. Henriksen.

A sort of cultural history of the Cold War. Through dissections of popular films and books, especially Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Henriksen exposes the corrosive effects of nuclear weapons on American morals and society.

Tuesday, 2004-12-07

Jack Womack

Gibson writes about Jack Womack, including this classic qoute, so appropriate for these gloomy times:

On the wall was stencilled the Army’s most enforceable antiterror edict:

SPEAK ENGLISH OR DON’T SPEAK.

— from Ambient

The “Army” above is the Home Army, primarily employed in waging war on Long Island and keeping New York safe for capitalism. The world is ruled by the megacorporation Dryco… named in 1987, long before Tyco became a household name for financial skulduggery.

The only real difference from the “USA” of Womack’s future and Bush’s America is that there is no Christianity anymore. The “Q scrolls” exposed Jesus Christ as a naive patsy of the Romans. The Americans turned to the next best thing, and the Church of Elvis is the official religion.

I first read Womack in the early nineties. I’ve read Ambient, Terraplane, Heathern, and Elvissey (where agents of the Dryco are sent back in time to kidnap the Messiah). After that I kind of lost the taste for Womack’s dark future. It seems more and more believable every year.

Sunday, 2004-11-28

At the end of that handbasket ride

Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling.

Re-read this for the nth time. The prose and ideas are top-notch, but the story isn’t really up to scratch.

Update: could Katrina mark the start of this particular future?

Wednesday, 2004-11-24

Literature is a long game

William Gibson:

I would have liked to have gotten [Neal Stephenson] permanently out of the way shortly after reading Snow Crash, of course, but I could already see that I would need him one day to help battle Bruce Sterling. Literature is a long game.

Sunday, 2004-11-21

The dead can dance

Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett.

An enjoyable non-Discworld novel.

Also short, I finished it in a day.

Thursday, 2004-11-18

Gods and monsters

Ilium by Dan Simmons

An absolute corker of a book, weaving together Homer, Shakespeare, and the far future in a heady mix.

I haven’t read Simmons’ earlier Hyperion novels, but now that I’ve found he’s a great writer, I most definitely will.

Wednesday, 2004-11-17

There’s something out there…

Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo.

A “novel of ideas” that still stays pretty suspenseful. Granted, some of the ideas went over my head. I think a practising Christian would have more enjoyment of those parts of the book. But still an effective SF thriller.

Soundtrack: Anna Ternhiem, Somebody Outside.

A caul of tortured space-time

Revelation Space by Alistair Reynolds.

Space Opera in the hard SF mould. Full of cool neologisms (lighthugger, reefersleep) and well-written, despite a predilection for the word caul.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve read it before, but the scenes of carnage and mayhem seem a little bloodless, and the characters aren’t as fleshed-out as they could be. Entertaining none the less.

Soundtrack: Lisa Loeb, Cake and Pie and The Way It Really Is.

Friday, 2004-11-12

Men and Spiders

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge.

An absolutely brilliant SF novel, with the right mix of hard science and sense of wonder. If it has a fault, it’s that the central love story is a bit weak. But the aliens are well realised, and the apparent anthropomorphism in the beginning of the novel is really part of the plot.

What am I reading now? The reading list has been updated.

Sunday, 2004-10-24

Shiver me timbers

The Pirate Wars by Peter Earle.

A well-written, comprehensive history of piracy.

Saturday, 2004-10-23

Neal Stephenson interview

A Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson. Very funny.

I’m guessing Stephenson is the only best selling author on the planet that not only uses emacs and TeX but actually programs in emacs lisp.

Saturday, 2004-10-16

Raymond Chandler goes cyberpunk

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan.

A classic noir story updated with cyberpunkish themes. Full of sex and gore. Very entertaining.

Sunday, 2004-10-10

RAF vs USAAF: two views of aerial combat in WWII

Damn Good Show by Derek Robinson
Goodbye Mickey Mouse by Len Deighton

Two very different books about the same period of time: the bomber war against Germany in World War 2.

In Damn Good Show, Derek Robinson writes about bombers, having written about fighters in Goshawk Squadron and A Good Clean Fight.. He brings to the story his trademark humour and nihilism. This time though, he doesn’t kill off all his characters by the end, instead leaving a little ray of hope that some might come through the horrors of war and make a life on the other side.

Along the way, he debunks many myths about the wartime RAF, but doesn’t subtract anything from the extraordinary courage that it took to bomb an enemy country in pitch-black, freezing planes.

Deighton’s book is much more traditional view — the cold, squalor, and fear experienced by the American pilots protecting the bombers in P-51:s is present, but somehow he doesn’t convey as much realism as Robinson. The love story, although detailed, is banal. The characters are from central casting — the brainy, handsome Eastener, the brash uncultured guy from New Mexico, the beautiful English girl who loves them both. Deighton fleshes them out, but they still look and feel like cardboard.

the italian job

Love and War in the Appenines by Erik Newby.

Inspired by the Colditz book I re-read this classic of escape literature.

Of course, this being Newby, it is also very funny.

Wednesday, 2004-10-06

Hard boiling eggs in vacuum

Redemption Ark by Alistair Reynolds.

The second part of the Inhibitor trilogy. Nice enough read. Reynolds can’t do love scenes, or feelings at all for that matter, but makes up for it in plot and sense-of-wonder.

Tuesday, 2004-09-28

“Comrades! Embrace the dialectics of the post-scarcity economy, or be uploaded!”

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross.

An entertaining if uneven romp through a universe where nanotech disrupts post-Tsarist colony worlds and where an uploaded civilisation does all it can do to prevent entities from changing the past, thus editing them out of history.

A big part of the book (a bit too long) is a hilarious sendup of the kind of neo-Napolonic space navies as described by David Weber in the Honor Harrington series.

Sunday, 2004-09-26

More war

Blood, Tears and Folly: an objective look at World War II by Len Deighton.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Deighton’s Goodbye Mickey Mouse didn’t impress me, but this is a nice “amateur” history of WWII. Contains nice backgrounds to the different conflicts, with and emphasis on the tech aspects of the war.

I’ve really read too much about the Second World War. The problem is that the war’s status (in the US at least) as “the last good war”, together with the “Band of Brothers” aesthetics and the multitude of video games set there almost make the whole thing like a comic book. Despite the blood and guts falling out, the war is still like those 50’s and 60’s comics where heroic Brits and Yanks fight against Krauts and Yaps.

Monday, 2004-09-13

Making it to the ships

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod (re-read).

Fscking brilliant. ‘Nuff said.

Saturday, 2004-09-11

Video games

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.

Compulsively readable, like everything Gibson has written. But the beginning is much better than the end, which feels contrived and flat.

Like Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, this book shows that good SF is really about our own time.

Thursday, 2004-09-09

The stars are full of Reds

The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod (re-read).

Continuing my MacLeod jag. This is also not as good The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, but as a plausible utopia, it kinda works.

Monday, 2004-09-06

Whisky and fusion rockets

The Sky Road by Ken MacLeod (re-read).

The final installment of McLeod’s series of books about the fall and rise of a socialist-anarchist society.

Possibly the weakest of the four, but enjoyable none the less.

Update: Ken MacLeod has a blog. The things you find when you putz around the ‘Net…

Sunday, 2004-09-05

Coast to coast in ‘66

Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck.

A well-written, poignant memoir about two boys and their flight from New Jersey to California, both honouring and removing themselves from their difficult father.

Friday, 2004-09-03

Crumbling dominion

Imperium, by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

A travel writer mostly known for his writings on the Third World, Kapuscinski tells us about his encounters with the Imperium — Russia, first in its Czarist incarnation, then as the Soviet Union, and lastly stumbling towards a new system, which seems unlikely to be democracy in the Western sense.

From the harrowing account of his childhood in Soviet-occupied Poland, to the recollections of camp inmates in Magadan and the tragedy of Armenia, Kapuscinski paints a bleak picture of a great country plundered and murdered by generations of ruthless rulers.

This passage sums up the Soviet period. A batch of deportees has arrived in Magadan after a freezing sea voyage. They are counted, slowly, by illiterate guards:

The half-naked deportees stood motionless in a blizzard, lashed by the gales. Finally, the escorts delivered their routine admonition: A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an escape attempt — we shoot without warning! This identical formula was uniformly applied throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The whole nation, two hundred million strong, had to march in tight formation in a dictated direction. Any deviation to the left or the right meant death.

A democratic future in Russia seems unlikely:

The Russian land, its characteristics and resources, favor the power of the state. The soil of native Russia is poor, the climate cold, the day, for the greater part of the year, short. Under such natural conditions, the earth yields meager harvests, there is recurrent famine, the peasant is poor, too poor to become independent. The master or the state has always had enormous power over him. The peasant, drowning in debt, has nothing to eat, is a slave.

On the future:

And yet this country’s future can be seen optimistically. Large societies have great internal strength. They have sufficient vital energy and inexhaustible supplies of all kinds of power so as to be able to raise themselves up from the most grievous setbacks and emerge from the most serious crises.

Update: Just saw a TV programme about Kapuscinski, A Poet of the Frontline. So now I’m adding The Emperor to my reading list.

Thursday, 2004-08-26

The dark century

Brev från nollpunkten by Peter Englund.

A collection of essays about the defining moments of the last century: the First World War, the Great Terror, the Holocaust, the Allied bombings of Germany and Japan, and the atomic bomb over Nagasaki.

Also contains an essay about the eery similarities of Nazi and Stalinist architecture.

Tuesday, 2004-08-17

“The fate of this universe — and others! — is at stake!”

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

(Title shamelessly stolen from P.M. Agapow’s review of a different novel.)

Space opera in the Iain M. Banks mould, with bold sweeping vistas and more or less dysfunctional characters. Unlike Banks, this is hard SF, which means that the speed of light is still an absolute limit. Other than this, anything goes.

Reading this prompted me to re-read Revelation Space, the first novel set in this universe, and after just a few pages I can say that this novel is not up to the standards set by that one. Despite this, it is an entertaining read and more well written than most.

Sunday, 2004-08-08

The Anti-Rhodes

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Partly because of the great writing, partly because my own background growing up in Kenya, and partly for the fact that Theroux has mellowed quite a bit. I remember his alter-ego in My Secret History as a prick, which is perhaps ungenerous as that book is a novel. His previous travel books have also left a sour taste in my mouth, but here he’s much more generous to the people he meets.

The chapter on Kenya is depressing, as my memories of childhood there are happy, and I could see a bit of what he describes when we went back some years ago.

Two books have been added to my reading list after this chapter:

  • Graham Hancock, The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business
  • Michael Maren, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity

A point Theroux makes when visiting Malawi, where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sixties, is that only Africans can help Africa. The vast influx of foreign aid and charity hasn’t helped much. I’m sure that Africa’s problems are not due to aid and charity — the effects of colonialism and unfair trade practices by the rich world are much bigger factors — but aid hasn’t helped.

Theroux paints a bleak picture of a continent that just can’t be able to get its act together. He offers no solutions, only observations. But those are made with such clarity that the reader is left with the feeling that things will get better, one day.

PS Cecil Rhodes dreamt of an railway from the Cape to Cairo. Theroux has no such dreams, and he travels in the other direction.

Saturday, 2004-07-31

Fore!

A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour by John Feinstein.

I now know more than I thought I ever wanted to know about professional golf in the US. Synopsis: it’s damn hard, but if you’re good and lucky, you too can fly to tournaments in a private jet.

The first sports book I’ve read, interesting experience. All aspects of society are filled with jargon. If you know nada about golf, read something else. If you know the difference between a birdie and a bogey, it’s recommended.

Wednesday, 2004-07-28

Beware of brainwashed alien visitors

Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks.

Although Banks’ Culture novels are always enjoyable, this one feels like he’s coasting.

Thursday, 2004-07-22

Strange attractors

Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick.

A well written popular history of nonlinear dynamics.

Wednesday, 2004-07-21

Short tales

Boys and Girls Forever by Alison Lurie.

A collection of essays about children’s literature.

Sunday, 2004-07-18

Dark Swedish plans

Svenska förintelsevapen by Wilhelm Agrell.

A history of the Swedish plans to build WMDs, specifically a plutonium bomb and VX and mustard gas.

Never got past the planning stage due to politics and a new sense of the term “international security”.

The last chapter has interesting info concerning Iraq’s gas and nuclear programmes after Gulf War 1.

Saturday, 2004-07-03

The all-seeing eye

Body of Secrets by James Bamford.

An “exposé” of the NSA. This book has a hacked-together feel, as if it was composed of several magazine articles. The author veers from describing the NSA as an all-knowing threat to democracy and liberty, to telling us about glitches, catastrophes, and bureaucracy hampering the Agency’s ability to protect the US from it’s enemies.

There’s some interesting information in here though (assuming that the information is accurate):

  • The description of how Israel attacked a Sigint ship during the Six Days War.

  • The capture of another Sigint ship by the North Koreans in 1969.

  • How the Viet Minh could monitor US radio traffic during the Vietnam war, as the Americans didn’t bother to use communication security.

The sum of the book seems to be that, yes, the NSA can listen to every phone call and read every mail, but that they don’t have enough qualified people to make sense of what they’re picking up.

Must … install … GPG …

Monday, 2004-06-07

Ancient secrets

Venona: spåren från ett underrättelsekrig by Wilhelm Agrell.

A history of the Venona telegrams intercepted in Sweden during the Second World War, and the implications of their decoding on the revelations of Soviet espionage in Sweden during the period.

Man, that was a long sentence.

Agrell describes the Venona decrypts as the “Dead Sea Rolls of the Cold War”. The limited decryption of the traffic meant that the recovered plaintext nearly raised more questions than it answered.

Sunday, 2004-05-02

behind the wire

Colditz: the Definitive History by Henry Chancellor.

An entertaining history of the famous WW2 POW camp.

The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that Colditz, despite being the “prison of last resort” for repeat escapers and Deutschfeindlich, was actually more humane than many other places in Nazi Germany. Compared to concentration, extermination, and slave labour camps, it was a “bad hotel”.

Wednesday, 2004-04-28

secret war

Action This Day, Michael Smith and Ralph Erskine, editors. Bantam Press 2001. ISBN 0593 049101.

A collection of essays about Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

The most entertaining one is by the late John Chadwick.

This is how he describes his arrival in Heliopolis following the evacuation of Alexandria in 1942:

My arrival created administrative chaos, since I was a lone naval rating attached to an Army Intelligence Unit, itself attached to an RAF station.

He was later promoted “Temporary Sub-Lieutenant (Special Branch) RNVSR” because the material he handled was classed ‘Officers Only’.

Later, after the Italian Armistice, he wanted to promote code discipline in the Aegean:

[…] I volunteered to go on the next mission to act as liaison with the Italian Navy in Leros, in the hope of preventing any further breaches of security. My suggestion was rejected, and I was told brutally that my superiors did not mind if I were killed, but they were unwilling to take the risk of my being taken prisoner.

Chadwick later deciphered Linear B along with Michael Ventris.

Tuesday, 2004-04-20

going down in a spiral

Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald.

An excellent history/reportage about Vietnam during the American War.

Thursday, 2004-04-01

war is hell, and boring too

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell.

A blend of personal memoir, history, and literary criticism centering around WW2.

”(…) what time seems to have shown out later selves is that perhaps there was less coherent meaning in the events of wartime than we had hoped. Deprived of a satisfying final focus by both the enormousness of the war and the unmanageable copiousness of its verbal and visual residue, all the revisitor of this imagery can do, turning now this way, now that, is to indicate a few components of the scene. And despite the preponderance of vileness, not all are vile.”

Tuesday, 2004-03-30

“precision bombing”

The Bomber War: Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945 by Robin Niellands

A “fair and balanced” history of the Allied bombing campaigns during World War 2. A book similar to The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay.

Niellands doesn’t make any excuses for the Allied bombing. As he writes, there was a war on. And it is worth remembering that area bombing of civilians was initiated by the Germans, in Guernica, Warzaw, Coventry, and London. But the futility and horror of the bombing still remains. The point is not that area bombing was immoral. The war was immoral. But it still had to be fought.

Arthur Harris and his Command fought and died for the right of others to vilify their memory.

Thursday, 2004-03-11

wizard prang

Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson.

A brilliant book about fighter pilots in France and England in the beginning of World War 2.

the great war

The First World War by John Keegan

A history of WWI.

The opening and closing chapters are eloquent in their condemnation of this horrible conflict, the defining event of the twentieth century. But the intervening ones are dry history, failing to convey the horror of the fighting.

For a novelist’s view of the war, read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

Wednesday, 2004-02-11

McKinsey meets the CIA

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow.

20 years in the future, IRC pals from the same timezones help each other out to try to further their Tribes’ way of life — easygoing PST, hard-hitting EST, and stodgy, state-loving GMT. Each Tribe has agents in the other’s territory, working in management consultancies, trying to undermine the enemy’s competitiveness with hare-brained theories.

When our hero comes up with a great P2P scheme his friend and lover conspire to put him away in a mental hospital so that they don’t have to share the profits.

Not as far “out there” as Down and out in the Magic Kingdom by the same author, but still a great read. Especially since it’s free.

Saturday, 2004-01-24

the anti-Biggles

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson.

This is Robinson’s first book about war in the air. The dogfighting over France in 1918 is presented as just as bad as the fighting in the trenches. Powerful stuff.

Thursday, 2004-01-22

a modern classic

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

Re-reading this for the n-th time. The final episode of the film trilogy inspired me. I was pleased to find out that my internal movie was still the same. I was also impressed that Jackson was so faithful to the book.

Too bad the Swedish translation is so flawed. I would really like Leo to read this. He’s old enough but his English’s not good enough for the original. Viking will be old enough when the new translation is ready.