Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
Published: Tor, 2006
Awards Won: Hugo and Locus SF Awards
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial and Prometheus Awards

The Book:

“Advances in medicine have rescued the elderly Robert Gu, world-class poet, from death’s door.  While he’s admired by many, the people closest to him know him as an abusive and hateful SOB.  While recovering, he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter Miri, a sunny young teen whom he’d never had the opportunity to wound. He has lost his place in the world, and his sense of how he relates to the people in it.  It’s difficult for him to go back to poetry, so he begins the painful process of trying to learn a new generation of technology through adult remedial education.

One thing that particularly grates on Robert is the lack of physical books in this new age, since most information has been digitized into searchable information.  When he learns from others of his generation that a new technology is going to digitize the library of his old university, destroying the books in the process, he falls into their clandestine scheme to throw a spanner in the works. Things are never simple in an interconnected world, though, and Robert has no way to know how far his actions will reach.” ~Allie

I’m finally coming in on reading the last few Hugo winners!  I’m currently reading Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, and then my only remaining unread winner is Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I’ve also read A Shadow Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge years ago, and as far as I can recall, I enjoyed it quite a lot.

My Thoughts:

Rainbows End imagines a fascinating future world filled with new technology.  Connectivity has moved into articles of clothing, and young people can manipulate information and communication with gestures.  I especially enjoyed how technology allowed you to play with perception.  You can transform your surrounding into Middle Earth, but still keep the relevant cues so that you can interact normally in the shared physical reality.  The novel also takes into account the downsides of a highly connected world.  For instance, most work is now about synthesizing information, and non-searchable data structures (like physical books) are neglected.  When most people are interacting through digital avatars, a more literal form of identity theft is also a problem.  Despite the downsides, it’s a very cool world, and one that I was happy to explore.

On the other hand, I was not particularly interested in the abusive jerk of a protagonist, Robert Gu. I’m also not exactly sure why his body was miraculously cured to youth, because it was irrelevant to the story.  Anyway, he has a deeply unpleasant personality, and I sympathized with his family’s dislike of him.  Robert does have a small character arc throughout the book, where he becomes gradually slightly less of an abusive jerk.  This might be a realistic depiction of the extent to which people can actually change, but in fiction it can feel a little unsatisfying. Aside from Robert, though, there were some sympathetic side characters.  His cheerful and intelligent granddaughter Miri was a favorite of mine, as well as his earnest and struggling remedial classmate Juan.  Some of the other elderly also have interesting takes on how to re-integrate into the current society.  For me, there were interesting and likeable characters here, they just weren’t Robert Gu.

Regarding the plot, I think I could best describe it as fitting in the slice-of-life genre.  I’ve seen the novel described as a thriller, but I feel that’s a little misleading.  There is a global conspiracy that may be a threat to the human race, but it’s heavily backgrounded.  The main story is about Robert’s daily life, his work with the remedial education class, and his relationships with his family.  Robert’s big conspiracy is just a plot with his old frenemies to mildly inconvenience the book digitizing/shredding operation.  The implementation of this plot leads to the most action-packed part of the book (which includes a really neat technological riot), but there’s not much narrative payoff from all the chaos.  I enjoyed the page-by-page of seeing life in this interesting future, though, so ultimately I’m happy to have read it.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

Rainbows End is a slice-of-life story featuring a jerk protagonist in an interesting future world.  I enjoyed exploring how ubiquitous connectivity affected people’s lives, as well as seeing the clever things that can be accomplished with augmented reality.  The main character, an abusive old man named Robert Gu, has a slight redemption character arc, but it was never enough to really make him likeable for me.  I preferred reading about some of the side characters, such as his granddaughter and his classmates.  There is a big, worldwide conspiracy involved here, but it’s the little, local conspiracies that are the focus of the novel.  This is not my favorite Vinge novel, but I did enjoy exploring its hypothetical future.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Read-Along: Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. Corey, Part 3


Welcome to week three of the read-along of James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes, book six of The Expanse! This week we’re covering chapters 28-41, and discussion questions were provided by Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow.  Feel free to check out our Goodreads page if you’d like to join this or future read-alongs!  And now, beware of the really serious spoilers below.

1. The side of good takes a hit with the sudden death of Fred Johnson, but it doesn't take long for some to start using it toward their own ends. Dawes, in particular, seems to have kingmaker aspirations that won't wait, despite his grief. What did you make of his actions in these chapters?

I think maybe I read him as much more sympathetic than this question implies.  He realized he made a mistake backing Marco, both because Marco was incompetent and because it was the wrong decision.  He understood Marco was a terrible at everything besides charisma, but he thought he could use him to unify the Belt.  

I think his guilt over betraying Fred, and his grief for his death, have pushed him to side with Holden.  It was interesting seeing him make a case for following Holden, even when he didn’t even like the guy himself.  I think he could be a really useful ally, since he is better at manipulating people than Holden will likely ever be.

2. Filip appears to be sliding further toward realising just where, precisely, he really stands with Marco. Do you think he'll slide the rest of the way there before it's too late to do anything? For that matter, given our general attitudes toward him so far, do you feel more sympathy for him now?

Whenever he feels sad about his father treating him poorly, at least he can warm his heart with the pride of knowing he killed over 15 billion people (note my sarcasm).  I don’t think it really matters at this point whether he turns on his father or not, because I don’t see how he has the ability or opportunity to do anything useful for the opposition. Seeing as he hasn’t really changed at all, my attitude towards him is similarly unchanged.  

3. With Avasarala's massive (and massively ambitious) attack upon the Free Navy underway, plans are already having to be altered - though Captain Pa is altering them because of her conscience, rather than (arguably) out of necessity. Did she do the right thing with the Solano, or do you think it will only come back to bite her?

I guess time will tell, but I think she probably did the right thing.  It’s nice that she considers other Belters human, though she isn’t really willing to extend that courtesy to Inners.  That puts her a notch above Marco.  So yeah, I appreciate that she is trying to do the right thing by the Belters. It will probably come back to bite her, but I hope she can handle it when it does.  

4. It's all on the line now, so I have to ask: Do you have any predictions? Desired outcomes? Possibly any POVs remaining you'd like to see before it's all over?

I hope that the Belters aren’t eradicated, and that Earth reaches some kind of stable equilibrium.  I hope that the “Free Navy” problem is more or less handled in this book, so Marco and company won’t be sticking around. I think we’ve been all over with POVs, so I can’t think of anyone in particular that I still want to see.   

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
Published: Orbit, 2014
Series: Book 4 in The Expanse

The Book:

The gates have opened the way to a thousand new worlds and the rush to colonise has begun. Settlers looking for a new life stream out from humanity's home planets. Illus, the first human colony on this vast new frontier, is being born in blood and fire. Independent settlers stand against the overwhelming power of a corporate colony ship with only their determination, courage and the skills learned in the long wars of home. Innocent scientists are slaughtered as they try to survey a new and alien world.

James Holden and the crew of his one small ship are sent to make peace in the midst of war and sense in the heart of chaos. But the more he looks at it, the more Holden thinks the mission was meant to fail. And the whispers of a dead man remind him that the great galactic civilisation which once stood on this land is gone. And that something killed them.” ~WWEnd.com

I’ve gotten back into The Expanse, by participating in a months-long read-along of the series to date!  Right now, we’re in the middle of Babylon’s Ashes, and I’m finally starting to catch up with my overall reviews. Cibola Burn is discussed in spoiler-filled detail here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.  I don’t intend to give away any major plot points in this review, but do keep in mind that it is the fourth book of a series.  This is a series that needs to be read in order, so there are necessarily some plot spoilers of previous books.

My Thoughts:

At the end of book three, it seemed clear that the next novel would involve the many planets opened up to humanity through the gates.  Cibola Burn does not disappoint on that account, revolving as it does around colonization rights to a new planet known as Illus or New Terra by Belters and Inners, respectively. The planet itself is really interesting, and I like that this series has a bit more of a twist on the ancient, vanished alien civilization.  Illus has its own alien flora and fauna, while also bearing the marks of occupation by the gate makers.  There’s also the lurking threat of whatever destroyed the gate-maker civilization, and the fear that some remnant of it might remain.  Sparking things into action, Holden is bringing the protomolecule to the planet through the form of ghost-Miller.  Safe to say, the planet has a complicated history and biosphere, and it presents some interesting and dangerous challenges to the sudden human intruders.  This ‘alien’ side of the story kept me well and truly hooked.

The human side of the story was in some ways less compelling.  Holden arrives to mediate a dispute between a corporation that has mounted a scientific expedition, and colonists who have settled the planet with no authorization.  This might sound like a story about an evil corporation against plucky survivalists, but the corporation actually seems to intend to act in good faith all around.  The conflict that pulls Holden to the system is perpetrated by a very small subset of people on each side.  Unfortunately, one of those people is the violent, cardboard villain who holds control of the corporation’s security force.  His motivations seemed incredibly thin, so I didn’t ever fully understand why he was so dedicated to causing suffering. I appreciated the more complicated villains of Abaddon’s Gate, and this felt like a step back.  While there were plenty of legitimate reasons for friction between the two populations, having this plotline pushed primarily by a single evil person made the conflict feel forced.  I was much more interested in how the people would respond to the threats that arose from the alien planet itself.

For another thing, the viewpoint characters, aside from Holden, were also a bit bland. I didn’t really dislike any of them, but none of them really had the strength of character of Bobbie or Avasarala, for example.  Their perspectives are worthwhile--corporation scientist Elvi, angry colonist Basia, and corporation security member Havelock--but there seemed to be pretty long stretches of downtime in each of their stories.   Some of their subplots felt more like filler than necessary for the overall story.  It was nice to see the situation from each angle, but at the same time I just wished there was a bit more for them to do.  In a broad sense, though, the events of Cibola Burn have interesting implications for the future of the series.  Finishing this novel left me eager to move on to the next, because I am still invested in the overall story of this universe and the adventures of the crew of the Rocinante.  

My Rating: 3.5/5

Cibola Burn is probably my least favorite of the series to date, but I am still on board for continuing the series.  The story features an alien planet with a complicated history, and I enjoyed watching our characters slowly unravel its story. On the other hand, the human conflict of the story was driven by cardboard villains and shown through the perspectives of some unremarkable viewpoint characters.  I felt like most of the non-Holden storylines had just too much filler and not enough of the main story.  It’s still an important volume in the continuing story of The Expanse, it just didn’t thrill me as much as some of the others have.