Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

This book is another Hugo nominee. It's a sort of future history that supposedly tells a story that happened decades or centuries ago. To show that the story takes place in the past, it is written in a very old style of language and storytelling (the book actually happens hundreds of years in the future from the real current time). One of the narrative devices is a narrative voice that comments on events and sometimes even argues with itself about details of the book, like about who is the main character of the book.
Religion has been all but outlawed after a devastating war that was caused by religious beliefs. Religion cannot be publicly discussed, if a professional called a sensayer isn’t present. The nations have also vanished, and they are replaced by clans of sorts that bind people who have similar interests. The clans take care of their members, and most people belong to very tight families that usually consist of several people of different sexes. And the mere mention of sexual differences or even gender is very much taboo.
The main character, Carlyle Foster, is a sensayer. His friend, Mycroft Canner, is a slave of sorts, due to crimes he has committed. The crimes he committed are very extreme, but he has been “adjusted”, and he isn’t able to harm even insects anymore. They are taking care of a very special child who apparently can perform real miracles — like waking up toy soldiers as real, intelligent, and self-aware creatures.
The language and the structure of the book are pretty heavy, hard to read, and exhaustive, and at places very irritating. The plot itself was pretty good, but the fairly experimental narrative technique made the book pretty hard to follow, and it was a struggle to read at places. This is a book that might be easier to understand on a second reading, and I probably didn’t get everything out of it after the first reading. Also, the capabilities of the child were slightly too much on the fantastical side for a book that otherwise is very science fictional. This won’t be one of my top choices in the Hugo voting.

432 pp.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May-June 2017

A lot of short stories in this issue – many of them lacked proper beginning and end.

The Girls with Kaleidoscope Eyes • novella by Howard V. Hendrix
An FBI detective arrives at a small town where a teacher has apparently tried to kill and burn several of his young female students, rescuing them at the last possible moment and endangering his own life. The teacher seems to have a history of failure of sorts. He has had some pretty good positions, but has had some unorthodox opinions and eventually he has fallen back to teaching at the high school at his old home town. The town has an NSA data center, with some very secret and advanced data processing faculties. The children who almost were killed are all girls; all look very similar and inhabit some very strange thought patterns.
A pretty good story; a digital take on Midwich Cuckoos. There were some irritating jabs on “SJW”-style of thinking which were unnecessary for the story. ****-
To See the Elephant • novelette by Julie Novakova
An animal psychologist has arrived to find out why a young male elephant is behaving very strangely. As elephants are dying out, due to widespread disease, every single one counts. She is able to create an almost telepathic connection with EEG electrodes which are attached to the bull. A story that is written to showcases a couple novel ideas. A fair one as such, but otherwise not very memorable. ***
The Chatter of Monkeys • short story by Bond Elam
The ecosystem has apparently pretty much fallen. The nations are still battling for some pretty unspecified reasons. An alien robot has arrived on Earth and is able to offer a solution for the catastrophe. But humans don’t seem too interested in the solution. Scant backstory and caricature-like characters make this pretty average story. ***-
A Grand Gesture • short story by Dave Creek
A man who inadvertently caused the death of several people faces an ethical dilemma on a foreign planet. Should he save possibly sentient aliens at cost of human lives? A pretty nice story. ***
Decrypted • short story by Eric Choi
Digital encryption falls down, causing severe unforeseen consequences; among others, a loss of the secrecy of previously unknown messages. Another story that is a bit too short and cursory; more of a scene than a real story. ***
Seven Ways to Fall in Love with an Astronaut • short story by Dominica Phetteplace
A love story of sorts, between scientist/astronauts who work in space and study Martian micro-organisms. The story goes more for a mood than a plot. ***
Focus • short fiction by Gord Sellar
Students in Vietnam revolt against scrupulous factory owners, but the government apparently has some plans. Not really a story, but just a short scene. There was not much backstory, and the story just ends on an emotional scene with no real resolution. ***
Ténéré • short story by Manny Frishberg and Edd Vick
A caravan finds out that an oasis has dried out. There is a new structure nearby and they go there to get water and to find out what has happened to the oasis. The factory uses solar energy to scrub CO2 from the air and uses the carbon to produce carbon nanotubes. A fairly good story, but unreasonably unreasonable nomads, especially considering who financed their caravan. Also, the science of the "problem" doesn't make any sense at all. As the carbon dioxide content of the air is pretty low as a percentage, and one molecule of carbon dioxide produces one molecule of oxygen, it simply isn't possible that there would be significant oxygen surplus around the factory. ***+
The Final Nail • novelette by Stanley Schmidt
A country doctor notices that there are more and more cases of meat allergy, a known syndrome that is usually spread by ticks, but there are no such ticks where he lives. Then his doctor friend who practices at nearby town notices the same thing. Apparently, someone is spreading the disease intentionally. Everything is pretty obvious and the reader knows what is going on earlier than the characters in the story. The end is a bit simplistic: the impact of widespread veganism has been discussed time and time again. But it is nice to read a story with a clear beginning and end. There have been far too many stories lately in this magazine which lack those. ***½
The Speed of Faith in Vacuum • short story by Igor Teper
The powerful "immortals" visit a struggling colony every few hundred years. They offer continuity and sometimes solve problems. The colony has encountered a new, very serious disease. The immortal, who is visiting seems to very frightened of the disease. Are they so powerful after all? A pretty nice story, could be just the beginning? ***½
Facebook Screamed and Screamed, Then I Ate It • short story by Sam Schreiber
An AI emerges on the Internet and invades Facebook. The writing was ok, but once more, too short and scene-like story to have real impact. ***
Vulture's Nest • short story by Marissa Lingen
A family of "scavengers" finds derelict space ships that are tainted by some kind of plaque and breaks them up into parts. One time, the family who used to own the ship objects. Short, but pretty nice simple story.***
In the Mists • short story by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzeberg
A man has been living alone on a planet for seventeen years. He is writing a journal, and wonders if he is sane. Another short, but pretty nice story. ***+
The Return • short story by Bud Sparhawk
A very short story about an old astronaut who goes back to space on an anniversary of space travel. Okay, but too short. ***
Lips Together • short story by Ken Brady
A woman spreads a genetically engineered Streptococcus mutant by kissing select men. So? ***-
The Banffs • short story by Lavie Tidhar
A writer befriends a member of a powerful group who apparently are aliens (or journeyer from another timeline). He works as a housekeeper and lives at vast mansions in the most interesting parts of world. But then the aliens go home, and then the story pretty much ends. Okay, but somewhat unsatisfying. There really wasn’t much of a point anywhere, the writing itself was pretty good. ***+
Where the Flock Wanders • short story by Andrew Barton
A derelict hull of a war ship which possibly had a pivotal role in a conflict between Earth and colonies in space is found. The safe in it has sealed orders, unopened. Those are most likely very important historical documents. Or are they? A pretty nice story, which is actually a fairly self-contained story, not a scene, like so many others in this issue.***+
Proteus • short story by Joe Pitkin
A spy goes to a floating city on Venus to find out if illegal gene manipulation is done there. Everyone seems to be beautiful and the life seems nearly utopian. Is it too good to be true? A nice story, which could have been longer with a bit more detail, as the motivation of the main character wasn't entirely shown. ***+
Kepler's Law • novelette by Jay Werkeiser
A colony ship arrives at a planet in another solar system. They land several exploratory shuttles (manned by idiots; one manages to crash, as the pilot pushes it in order to be the first one landing). The most passengers of the crashed ship die horribly, soon after landing (as they truly are idiots they almost all go together outside without any real protective suits). As all the members are idiots there is some nationalistic quarreling and they even seem to hate foods that aren’t native to their own countries. The planet also has some plants that are in suspicious straight lines (which were not detected in a “thorough” survey they made before landing). A fairly good story, but with irritatingly stupid characters. It might continue an earlier story, it rings some bells, but I didn't find the first part. The setup is pretty generic though; there are probably dozens of stories where ships leave Earth after some catastrophe. ***+

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

The story of two unusual youths. One is a boy with unparalleled technical skills, and another is a girl, who is a witch. The boy had already built a time machine when he was still in elementary school (the machine had a small drawback - it enabled only three-second jumps to the future) and a bit later he designed a computer with artificial intelligence, as an after school pastime. The girl has been able to talk with animals - at least sometimes - and had a deep discussion with a powerful tree while she was lost in the woods as a little child. They are both outcasts, and they are drawn together. Their parents are negligent in different ways, and they don’t get any support from them. An assassin is apparently trying to kill them, as he has foreseen that they might contribute to the destruction of the world. Later they are separated by events and time, but they meet again as adults, and they are drawn together, again. Soon they find themselves on opposing sides when the world is falling down, but will they find a way to work together?

The book was a fairly uneven mixture of science fiction and fantasy. The first quarter of the book reads just like a young adult book, or rather almost like a parody of a typical YA book, where the protagonists are 'special', and everyone is against them, everyone popular at school just hates them, and the adults don't understand them at all. Their parents were so dysfunctional that they seemed to verge on parody. Later the themes matured very much. The pacing of the book was a bit off, after a fairly fast beginning, everything pretty much stopped for a long time, until the events really took off, and then a lot seemed to happen in the last few dozen pages. The ending was very sudden and more than a little 'Deus ex machina' like and somewhat open. The world is ending, but at least the lovers found each other, and who cares what happens then?

320 pp.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Erkki Tuomioja: Häivähdys punaista

A biography of Hella Wuolijoki, one of the most renowned playwrights in Finland. Her life was very unusual and even contradictory; she was born to a middle-class family in Estonia. Later she emigrated to Finland and worked as a very successful business woman, who turned to Stalinist communism (and at the same time she owned a very large country estate). She was imprisoned during the war as she was suspected of espionage. When she was released from prison after the Second World War, she worked as the chairman of Finnish radio for several years. And during all that, she wrote plays that are still being produced, and one has even been filmed as a Hollywood movie. This biography concentrates on her political career and is written in a very matter-of-fact style and doesn’t tell us much about her personal life.

Luettu lukupiirin kirjana.
Elämänkerta Hella Wuolijoesta, naisesta joka eli elämän, joka vaikkapa elokuvan aiheena olisi niin epäuskottava, ettei sitä kukaan uskoisi. Virossa syntyneestä porvariperheen tyttärestä tuli kova liikenainen, kartanon omistaja, stalinisti, rauhanneuvottelija, mahdollisesti vakooja, Yleisradion pääjohtaja ja samalla maan johtava näytelmäkirjailija. Tämä kirja painottui paljolti hänen poliittiseen toimintaansa ja herätti mielenkiintoa siihen, mitä muuta hänen elämässään tapahtui – sillä ne muut asiat jäivät tässä kirjassa pahasti sivurooliin. Ehkä osittain aihepiiriin liittyen teksti oli jotenkin kovin kylmän kliinistä, sisältäen huiman määrän faktaa henkilönnimien ja vuosilukujen muodossa. Mielenkiintoiset anekdootit ja ”mieltä lämmittävät” tarinat kohdehenkilön elämästä jäivät tässä kirjassa varsin pienelle huomiolle. Kielellisesti teksti oli selkeää ja välillä ehkä hiukan tylsän puoleista. Tuomiojan omassa ajatusmaailmassa kiinnitti huomioita mm. se, että Yrjö Leinon erottamista hallituksesta hänen luovutettuaan Suomen kansalaisia Neuvostoliittoon nimitettiin ”sattumien ohjaamaksi tapahtumaketjuksi”; oikeastihan tuollainen teko olisi lähinnä elinikäisen vankeustuomion ansaitseva toimi. Kirjassa käsiteltiin myös Hella Wuolijoen siskoa, joka asui Englannissa ja oli perustamassa Englannin kommunistista puoluetta. Nämä jaksot olivat turhan liitännäisen oloisia ja sinällään hänen toimintansa oli viime kädessä aika merkityksetöntä ja jäi lähinnä kuvaukseksi nimilistoista henkilöistä joita he tapasivat ja lehdistä joita he julkaisivat. Mitään tarkempaa analyysia toiminnasta ei esitetty ja muista lähteistä selvitellen toiminta jäi kokonaisuuden kannalta aika yhdentekeväksi. Kirja oli aika puhtaasti historiakirjoitusta eikä viihdyttäväksi ”lukuromaaniksi” tarkoitettu elämänkerta. Kirjapiirin mielipide oli aika pitkälle samanlainen kuin omani. Kirjoitustyyliä pidettiin kuivana mutta informatiivisenä, ja kirja herätti kiinnostuksen siihen, mitä laajemmalti Hella Wuolijoen elämässä tapahtui.

425 s.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers

The second book I read for the Hugo voting.
For the most part, the book has two separate stories. One is about a young girl who escapes from a "factory" where she and many other young girls work to salvage usable parts from trash. She has never been outside of the factory, and has spent her entire life in a dormitory with other girls. The children are supervised by robots. She escapes and is rescued by an AI that travels in an almost destroyed spaceship. She and the AI decide to repair the ship so that they’ll be able to escape the country-sized junkyard they are in.

Another thread of the book follows an AI who is uploaded to an android body, and who tries to adjust to life as a “human.” She is cared for by a woman, who was raised by an AI when she was young. (It isn’t hard to guess who she is...).

Apparently, the book is the second part of a series, but it works perfectly well as a separate piece. In fact, it is fairly difficult to imagine what the first book might be about - perhaps how the ship became abandoned?

Particularly in the beginning of the novel, the scenes which occur in the past are vastly more interesting. I almost was tempted to skip the “boring” parts to find out what happens to “Jane” (the girl) and “Owl” (the AI). The parts that are set in the "present" are nowhere near as gripping, but slowly, as the personality of the AI grows, they become more and more interesting.

The stories pretty much converge at the end. The book was very well-written and entertaining. Its only weakness is the pacing, which is slightly off. The last chapters were a slight let-down compared to the intensity that had built up previously. But it was a very enjoyable book, nevertheless.

365 pp.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe - A Biography

This is a biography of Joss Whedon that covers his life pretty well. As I am fairly familiar with his career, there were few real surprises here, but it was still a very interesting read. I might have liked a more detailed take on some of his more famous works, like Buffy. There is some stuff on his earlier years that might have been shortened to give room for that. Also, the book felt pretty impersonal for the most part; apparently, Whedon himself didn’t have much influence on the book.

448 pp.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1954

Only three stories as a pretty unremarkable serial by Isaac Asimov take a lot of space. The stories are fairly tolerable examples of their time.

Immigrant • novella by Clifford D. Simak

A man has gotten the permission to emigrate to Kimon. That is rare, as only the smartest applicants, who are able to pass very demanding tests, qualify. It is supposed to be a land of opportunity with very high wages (and mastery of instantaneous travel with the power of mind alone). When he arrives at the planet, he finds out that he hardly qualifies for any position. Not bad, but the blurb at the beginning of the story spoils the end (everything is just “training” to be something bigger), and the man who is supposed to be one of the smartest on Earth is incredibly stupid and dense. ***
I Made You • short story by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
An automated battle robot is guarding his perimeter at the moon. There is one organic thing hiding in a deep cave he must still destroy, but he can’t get to the cave, and the puny thing that claims stupid things – like that he has designed the robot – can’t escape. A fairly good but a bit dated story. ***
Final Exam • novelette by Arthur Zirul
An alien ship is wrecked over Earth. Its crew is stranded on different parts of the world. The Earth had seemed very civilized, but the behavior of the people seems to be less so. The story is somewhat overlong, but otherwise not bad. A bit of an untypical story for the Analog of the time, as humans aren’t the most smartest people of them all. ***-

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) by Yoon Ha Lee

The first book I read from this year’s Hugo nominees.
The book is science fiction, which happens, apparently, in the far future. The book really throws you to the deep end at the beginning. There are many very strange and unfamiliar words and concepts which aren’t explained at all, and the book is very hard to read and to get into, especially at first. It does get a little easier, but not much, and there were many different characters, who were very hard to keep track of, especially for someone with the bad memory I have for names.

A major part of the book is figuring out what actually is going on, and a detailed explanation might be considered to be a spoiler.

The main protagonist makes an unorthodox decision during the battle. She gets ordered to the headquarters and isn’t sure if she is going to be rewarded or punished. In a way she is both; she gets an important mission but is implanted with a war criminal, who killed his own troops hundreds of years ago. His mind has been recorded and it can be implanted on another person. He is a brilliant strategist and has never lost a battle, even with very bad odds. But he is apparently crazy, and there is a chance that his lunacy will infect the person who is carrying him. It is unknown why he attacked his own troops.

The protagonists are battling against heretics with a different calendar and way of calculating time. It seems that has a profound effect on what sort of technologies work and can be used. I had some trouble with that, as I identified with that side where the protagonists are the bad guys. If someone is called a heretic, that implies that there is some sort of dogmatic belief system which persecutes people that believe something else, so someone who is accused of being a heretic always gets some sympathy from me. So I had a feeling right from the start that we are looking things from the viewpoint of the “bad guys”. I am not saying the feeling was right, but there were shades of gray...

One aspect of the book was very strange and imaginative; technology with intelligent, self-aware helper “bots” and weapons with extremely unpleasant but imaginative effects. All in all, pretty good, but a complex book which was not an easy read.
384 pp.

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