Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

Nexus: Mankind Gets an Upgrade by Ramez Naam
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2013
Series: Book 1 of Nexus 5
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award, John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author

The Book:

“In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he's thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage - for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.

From the halls of academe to the halls of power, from the headquarters of an elite US agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath a top university in Shanghai, from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok, from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand - Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.”

Nexus is Naam’s first science fiction novel, though he has published non-fictional works. The second novel of the series, Crux, is already available.  I haven’t yet read the second, but it seems like this is going to be the kind of series where it is important to read in order.

My Thoughts:

Nexus is a techno-thriller about the effects of developments in mind-altering/linking technology.  The title is from a drug, Nexus, which allows people to temporarily link minds with other users.  The main character, Kaden Lane, has worked with his friends to create a new version “Nexus 5” (the series title) which installs a permanent network within a user’s mind.  With this network one can run applications on one’s own nervous system, and mentally connect with other users.  These apps can control your heart rate, the words you say, and even give you Bruce Lee style martial arts reflexes.  The last is no Matrix-level kung-fu app, though, since it can’t make an ordinary person comparable to someone who has actually been trained in combat.  The linking aspect of the technology also allows communication and control between multiple people’s minds, which is where many of the moral problems of this new technology arise.

I can’t deny that this sounds like a very cool idea, but it is also one that I hope is never developed.  There are so many uses this technology could have, ranging from the positive to the extremely negative.  The novel mostly addresses the extremities of this range—from psychological healing and meditation to mind control and manipulation of memory and personality.   I can see a whole range of negatives and positives in between these two extremes as well, though, which are not yet addressed in the story.  I mean, imagine a world where men on the street could harass you or send unsolicited pictures of their genitalia directly into your mind. Or on the even more mundane level, communicating with someone mind-to-mind would drastically change the accepted model of social interactions, and I imagine there would be a wave of global culture shock, even if the technology were dispersed peacefully.  All of this goes to say that I think this is a really fascinating idea, and it seems like there are so many directions this series could go with its premise.

For this first novel, though, the direction it goes is towards a pretty standard action-thriller format.  The Nexus technology was banned by the government (for good reason, I think), and agents have uncovered Kade’s Nexus 5 development group.  In exchange for the freedom of his friends, Kade is forced to work as a government agent.  He’s paired with his watchdog, super-agent Samantha Cataranes, and sent on a sting mission to investigate a potentially highly advanced Chinese scientist. Of course, there’s more going on than Kade knows, and he’s soon stuck in an impossible situation with no good choices and no one to trust.  The ensuing conflicts involve a whole lot of surprisingly intense and emotionally disturbing violence, so reader discretion is definitely advised.

In addition to the relatively standard plot format, the characters tended toward familiar clich├ęs as well. The main characters include a counterculture-supporting, anti-government, idealistic scientist (Kade), and a human-weapon secret agent with an excessively tragic past (Sam).  Other characters include corrupt, bumbling government agents, mentally pure Buddhist monks, a veteran super-soldier with PTSD, and a scientist whose views remind me of Magneto.  They’re all interesting in terms of portraying different perspectives on the developing technology, but they still fall into familiar roles.  I also had some difficulty in feeling an emotional connection to the characters. In the case of Kade, his behavior in the first chapter, in an app-assisted sexual misadventure, left me thinking of him as a pretty sleazy guy.  In a general sense, though, I felt like there was a certain lack of consistency in the characters’ emotional reactions to traumatic situations. 

I think the strength of the story is really how it combines an intriguing technological idea with a fast-paced thriller plot.  The story doesn’t get bogged down in lengthy explanations, instead allowing the reader to build up a sense of the near-future world and the Nexus technology through the events of the story. The showing-over-telling when it comes to the technological aspects also kept the jargon down to a readable level and allowed the plot to progress quickly.  Ramez Naam is also a technologist and non-fiction writer, so it is a bit chilling to think that the technological developments may be reasonable extrapolations from existing technology.  The first novel feels like a complete story to me, but it also clearly leads in to the next book.  The way it ended really makes me want to know what will happen next, so I will probably read Crux at some point in the future!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Nexus is a techno-thriller that gives a chilling look into the direction mind-linking technology might take, and how it could change our world.  Nexus 5 is a system that can be run on a human mind, allowing networking between minds as well as a new level of control over one’s own body.  The story was fast-paced and exciting, though the intensity of the violence sometimes exceeded my comfort level.  The characters did not always seem emotionally consistent to me, and they also sometimes felt more like standard types representing various viewpoints than well-developed individuals.  However, I am very interested in these kinds of near-future stories about the effects of technology extrapolated forward from current research, and I will probably be continuing the series with the second novel, Crux!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: Warbound by Larry Correia

Warbound by Larry Correia
Published: Baen, 2013
Series: Book 3 of the Grimnoir Chronicles
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

Warning: This is the third book of a series, so there may be spoilers of the first two books below.

The Book:

Only a handful of people in the world know that mankind's magic comes from a living creature, and it is a refugee from another universe. The Power showed up here in the 1850s because it was running from something. Now it is 1933, and the Power's hiding place has been discovered by a killer. It is a predator that eats magic and leaves destroyed worlds in its wake. Earth is next.

Former private eye, Jake Sullivan, knows the score. The problem is hardly anyone believes him. The world's most capable Active, Faye Vierra, could back him up, but she is hiding from the forces that think she is too dangerous to let live. So Jake has put together a ragtag crew of airship pirates and Grimnoir knights, and set out on a suicide mission to stop the predator before it is too late.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Larry Correia, and I have jumped in the middle of a running series. I did this because I wanted to make sure I had finished reading the nominee novel before the Hugo voting ended, but I would recommend for readers start at the beginning of the series, with Hard Magic. There’s enough information in Warbound about past events that I never felt lost, but I think the series would be more effective when read in order.

My Thoughts:

Though there are differences between them, Warbound reminds me quite a lot of X-Men stories.  For instance, the Power-wielding “Actives” of this world are treated with suspicion by ordinary people, and they are even battling their own Active registration act in the US legislature. The story also focuses on a ragtag group of interesting people with various superhuman powers, fighting against a superhuman evil that threatens all of humanity. However, I felt like the magic system in Warbound was much more codified, with a finite set of the different kinds of abilities that Actives could use. Since the tools at the characters disposal were pretty well established, their problem-solving tended to involve the creative use of the collective skills of the group.  I feel like I’ve seen far too many Hollywood films involving people who use their super-powers to “punch really hard”, so I enjoyed seeing how these characters utilized their magical potential, both in and out of combat.  

There are a ton of minor characters in Warbound, but I felt like the main characters were Jake and Faye.  Jake is an exceptionally intelligent gravity spiker, who is organizing a group to go out questing to kill the Pathfinder, the being that will show the predator the way to Earth.  Faye, a simple teenage girl from Oklahoma, is the recipient of a spell that ties the magical power of every person that dies to her.  This makes her the most powerful Active on the planet, as well as a potential future threat that might rival the predator. Jake seemed a little like a standard action-hero to me, but I thought Faye’s predicament was pretty intriguing.  Given Faye’s complicated moral situation, though, she has a remarkably simplistic sense of right and wrong.   For instance, she plans to keep from ‘going bad’ by only killing ‘bad guys’, but she never really stops to question her ability to distinguish who does and does not deserve to die.

I think this simple morality is characteristic of the save-the-world action-movie sort of story, though, where the good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined and the use of violence is generally seen as justified. The heroes also have to be forgiven for the massive amount of collateral damage they inflict, in terms of infrastructure and human lives, in the process of trying to save the world.  I think these are all things that just need to be accepted, in order to enjoy this kind of story.  In general, I think Warbound is a novel that is meant solely to entertain, and in that I think it is largely successful.

My Rating: 3/5

Warbound is an action-packed fantasy adventure story, and it's pretty entertaining.  The magic system is interesting, and allows for characters with various classes of super powers that are used in a satisfyingly creative way in the many action sequences of the story.  The main characters and the many side characters were pretty memorable, though only the main characters get much development.  The morality in the story is of the simple ‘us-vs-them’ variety, where our heroes are the good guys, out to kill the bad guys and save the Earth.  It’s probably not a novel I’ll be thinking about years from now, but I feel like it accomplishes its goal—to be a violent, action-oriented, entertaining fantasy about people with superhuman powers.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira Grant (a.k.a. Seanan McGuire)
Published: Orbit, 2013
Series: Book 1 of Parasitology
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.
We owe our good health to a humble parasite - a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the Intestinal Bodyguard worm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system - even secretes designer drugs. It's been successful beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them. But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives . . . and will do anything to get them.”

This is the fourth novel I’ve read by Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire, and her fourth Hugo nomination for best novel.  I really loved Feed, but was not a huge fan of the sequels.

My Thoughts:

Parasite seemed very similar to the Newsflesh Trilogy, both in some ways I enjoyed and in other ways that I did not. The writing style is similar to the style of Newsflesh, with the same tendencies towards repetition of phrases (e.g. “the hot warm dark”, “Don’t go out alone”, etc.).  The story is also centered about a pretty neat speculative human-health idea, like the zombie virus in Newsflesh. I can see how a SymboGen worm that dispenses medicines would be very useful for people with chronic illnesses, and I’m sure it’s weight-managing abilities would help it gain popularity. While there was discussion on the genetics of the worm, I would have liked to get a little more information on how it could actually do all the things SymboGen claims.

Though the worm is pretty cool, the world situation in which the story begins seems a little improbable. Within about a decade, it seems that virtually everyone has accepted a SymboGen worm into their bodies. Even given the benefits of the worm, I think this seems very unlikely. I appreciated that the idea was somewhat addressed in a series of excerpts on advertising, titled “Selling the Unsellable”.  In addition to universal acceptance, the story relies on the idea that no one has ever skipped their 2-year replacement appointment, and that there has never been any official study of a commercial worm from the body of a consumer, outside of SymboGen. There may be good explanations for the last two, but for now, it was enough to stretch my suspension of disbelief a little bit too far.    

Some of the character types were also familiar from Newsflesh, including the cardboard villain, the mad scientist, and a quirky, hyperactive, violent, woman (similar to a minor character in Blackout).  I am not really a fan of any of these character types, and I was especially annoyed by the novel’s depiction of science/scientists. On the other hand, the heroine, Sal, had a really interesting personality and situation.  Sal woke up from a car accident with total amnesia (memories and knowledge), and spent six years trying to simultaneously fit back into her former life and establish her new identity.  In some ways she seemed to have re-adapted to her life almost unbelievably well, but she also still possessed a certain short-sighted immaturity.  Her difficulties in prioritization, making decisions, and figuring things out makes sense in terms of her overall inexperience with the world, even though it sometimes made her a pretty frustrating heroine.

Sal’s inability to put things together might have been less frustrating if so much of the novel hadn’t been built around a plot twist that was obvious to the reader from the beginning of the novel.  It takes most of the rest of the characters about half of the book to figure this twist out, but it takes Sal until the very end.  This is despite the constant, obvious clues throughout her story, as well as the fact that someone actually flat-out explains the situation to her at one point.  Aside from the revelation of the twist, I didn’t feel like there was all that much in the way of resolution at the end of the story.  This is clearly the first novel of a series, and it mostly sets up the premise and the conflicts that will likely drive the future installments.

My Rating: 2/5

Parasite kicks off a new series, one that has quite a lot of similarities to the previous Newsflesh Trilogy. It is another case of medicine gone wrong, but with parasites instead of a zombie virus.  Some of the character types are very familiar from Newsflesh, and I was really not a fan of how science and scientists were portrayed.  I found the main character’s situation intriguing, but it took her entirely too long to figure out a plot twist that was clear to readers from the first chapter.  The end of the story sets up some interesting conflict for the next novel, but, unless the second novel is also nominated for a Hugo award, I think I may sit this series out.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross
Published: Ace Books, 2013
Series: Book 2 of Saturn’s Children Series
Awards Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Hugo Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

Krina Alizond is a metahuman in a universe where the last natural humans became extinct five thousand years ago. When her sister goes missing, she embarks on a daring voyage across the star systems to find her, travelling to her last known location - the mysterious water-world of Shin-Tethys.

In a universe with no faster-than-light travel, that's a dangerous journey, made all the more perilous by the arrival of an assassin on Krina's tail, by the 'privateers' chasing her sister's life insurance policy and by growing signs that the disappearance is linked to one of the biggest financial scams in the known universe.”

I have read a fair amount of Charles Stross’s fiction, though this is the first novel of his that I’m reviewing on my blog.  I have mostly read his short fiction, and Accelerando as serialized in the Asimov’s magazine.  Stross had a pretty good year at the Hugo’s recently, winning a rocket for his novella Equoid and placing second for best novel with Neptune’s Brood.  Neptune’s Brood is a sequel to Saturn’s Children (set 5000 years before), but I did not feel like I was missing anything for not having read the previous novel.

My Thoughts:

If you’re a person that enjoys thinking about what kind of economic systems might develop in an interstellar post-human society that doesn’t have faster-than-light travel, this book is probably just the one for you.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, and economics really is the heart and driving force of this entire novel.  The amount of thought that went into the system is impressive, and it was neat how the framework of the system shaped how society was capable of developing.  For instance, interstellar spaceships are a massively expensive undertaking, so all colonies start in debt and it’s unheard of for someone to waste that amount of capital on something like a warship. 

Since the economics were so complex, though, the story was interspersed with entire sections that were basically conversational lectures.  I was not really a fan of these infodumps, since they tended to repeat themselves for emphasis, and they slowed down the story to the point where it felt a little stretched out.  On the other hand, I think that the information really was necessary for understanding everything that was happening.  The story follows, Krina, an accounting historian on a study-pilgrimage, who specializes in researching financial fraud.  She starts out the story on a relatively simple quest to find her missing sister, but her story ends up revolving around the investigation of a massive, long-hidden fraud that could change her life.   

The absurdly comical situations in the story and Krina’s distinctive narration help propel things along, even through all the explanations.  After all, this is a far-future sci-fi story that manages to include bat insurance underwriter pirates, mermaids, and a spaceship cathedral manned by remote-controlled skeletons, among other things.  Krina’s personality balances the silliness by being amusingly prim and proper. For a quick taste of the narrative style, here’s Krina’s view of her situation:

“People behave very oddly when the ownership of large quantities of money is at stake.  Some—as we have seen—will commit murder or send out shape-shifting zombie assassins. I am not that ruthless.  However, here I am, running around into the cold and unwelcoming universe at large, having adventures—something I loathe and fear…”  ~p.111

I personally enjoyed the book’s sense of humor, and definitely laughed more than a few times.  However, there were also a lot of pop culture references (Pride & Prejudice, Star Wars, etc.) that seemed out of place in a distant-future post-human universe.  The ending also seemed rushed, though I liked how things turned out.  Altogether, I enjoyed reading Neptune’s Brood, though I think that it would be better appreciated by someone with an interest in economics.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Neptune’s Brood is a story of far-future finance, following a historian’s unfortunately adventuresome investigation into her clone-sister’s disappearance and a long-hidden fraud.  I liked the style of the novel’s humor, though I was not a huge fan of the many economics infodumps that came interspersed with the story.  The interstellar economic system is thoroughly imagined, and its workings are integral to the plot.  I think readers more interested in this aspect would probably appreciate Neptune’s Brood more than I did, but I still found it to be a pretty enjoyable novel.