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review 2014-12-07 05:04
[Book Review] Dust
Dust - Elizabeth Bear

I don't even really know where to start when summarizing this book.  I find it a fantastic blending of fantasy and science fiction.  To me the story starts out reading like high fantasy and then slides it way into high technology speculative fiction.  The story explores concepts of humanity, gender, religion, belief, society, and science.

I cannot think of a single way to review or summarize the book without any spoilers.

"Can an angel be imperfectly honest?"

"An angel can be whatever it is created to be," Samuel said, with perfect frankness.  "Humans are the only animals that intentionally, methodically change themselves."

Dust takes place on a generation ship, stranded in space for centuries.  Launched from Earth by fanatical Darwinists seeking to push the bounds of extreme, forced evolution using the ship as an petri dish.  Society is split into Means and Exalts, Engine and Comm.  The ship is the World.  The Angels that oversee the systems are warring for dominance.  War is coming and the twin stars they orbit are dying.

Overall, Dust is a fantastically textured novel.  It is the first of a trilogy, followed by Chill and Grail.  Bear does a fantastic job of setting the scene and slowly teasing out details as you read.  Dust was the September Virtual Speculation read.

Discussion Fodder:

  • What preconceptions or ideas did you form as you started the book?  How accurate were they?  At what point did they start to change?
  • Are there gender roles in Dust?  How are the expressed or sidestepped?  How does Mallory fit within the concepts of gender roles, and how does she subvert them?
  • How does the ability to consume the essence and memories of others effect the shape of a society?
  • The Jacob's Ladder is the world to those who live on it.  A lattice of passageways and habitats, engineering and command, kingdoms and domains.  Does the revelation of Jacob's Ladder as a starship change anything?  Is there any reason that it cannot be a world?  How do the concepts of different things change after so many thousands of years in an 'alien' environment?
  • Are the Exalt still human?  Some of their enhancements are bred and engineered, others implanted.  Are the Exalts monsters?
  • What does necromancy become in a world of fantastical technology?  What else could describe Mallory's role/occupation?
  • In the context of the world, does it make sense to call Dust, Samuel, and the others 'angels'?  What about identifying the original cohesive AI and computer system that ran the ship as 'god'?  What do you think about the use of Hebrew names for these man made angels, and the roles they represent?
  • Dust says he does not believe in prophesy, but does believe in stacking the deck.  Does prophesy ever amount to stacking the deck as people try to fit things within its framework?
  • Dust effectively invades and manipulates Percival's being, pushing her to make the world whole again.  Is he a villain?  Could he be anything but what he is?  Does that matter?
  • The Exalts have lifetimes measured in centuries, or longer, with bodies biologically and mechanically enhanced.  How would you imagine a life within such a framework would change outlook and behaviors?  What do you think of the moralities of the Exalt?  How does it effect their relationships, both romantic and platonic?
  • Rein tells Mallory there's no reason for to change from hermaphrodite to woman because she isn't in love with her.  Rein and Perceval argue about Perceval's celibacy, an elected biological modification.  Is Perceval's celibacy something to be "fixed"?  How does the choices that Mallory and Perceval have made regarding their physical and biological sexual forms shape who they are?  Would Mallory be different if s/he decided to spent half hir time in the form of one gender or the other instead of her blending of the two?  Does Perceval's celibacy change who she is?
  • A Jacob's ladder is many things, a toy, the ship, and the ladder that angels climb to reach Heaven.  "It is the hard path to exaltation."  The distinctions of Exalt and Mean are literal, the test and control groups to see how far mankind can elevate itself.  What do you think about the original mission?
  • What do you make of the heavy use of religious framework within the story?  Particularly considering the creation of life by man's hand and the man-made world in which they live in.
  • Perceval says "It is not a gift of freedom to not seize everything that it is in your power to seize."  How are the characters in this book free or constrained.  Do you see this sentiment reflected in your own life?
  • One of the themes in the book is love and wanting.  Is love more than a mix of chemicals?  How does an AI love its Captain?  How does the ability to change and constrain your emotions change the idea of love?
Source: libromancersapprentice.blogspot.com/2014/12/book-review-dust.html
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review 2014-11-06 17:17
[Book Review] Accelerando
Accelerando (Singularity) - Charles Stross

Manfred Macx lives on the cutting edge of future thought, and the future is coming at us whether we want it or not.  The whole concept of humanity and sentience is changing. A singularity of human existence.  Only as we become the aliens we learn there may be something else out there, and it might not have our best interests in mind.  Accelerando is a multi-generational story of post-singularity humanity and evolution.

Accelerando was the July (yes, I know, it's November, this has been a difficult few months) pick for Virtual Speculation.  I find Charles Stross' Science Fiction intelligent, witty, and fascinating, with the added bonus of the author's strong information technology knowledge set.  His near future (or alternative current day) science fiction explores the what-ifs of technology and culture.

The book is curious and quirky.  An idea seeded from the experiences working in IT during the late 90's.  The what-if of a future technology bubble, shifting cultures and paradigms.

In addition to finding a copy at your local library or bookstore, Stross has made the book available as a free ebook: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/fiction/accelerando/accelerando-intro.html.

Discussion fodder:

  • Manfred patents concepts and permutations of concepts, an activity that raises alarm and derision when a corporation attempts (such as patenting page turn animation, one-click purchasing, etc).  Is it merely his lack of greed or interest in accumulating property that prevents him from being a threat?  Or is this only a point of view (imagining trying to run a for-profit company with proprietary intellectual property)?  What do you think of Manfred's patent milling?  Is it ethical?
  • Technology is not the only thing evolving throughout Accelerando, but sexuality, sexual expression, norms, and morays as well.  The sex of Manfred's day is undeniably kinky, congress grown out of a fear of disease and biological contamination, "This generation is happy with latex and leather, whips and butt plugs and electrostim, but finds the idea of exchanging bodily fluids shocking: a social side effect of the last century's antibiotic abuse."  Looking at historical shifts in eroticism in the face of times of high infection risk (particularly towards feet) as well as the ease at which the Internet helps explore and expose 'deviant' sexualities, how far fetched do you find the direction in which sexuality takes in this book?
  • What do you think about the arguments about treating uploaded AIs as sentient human equivalent regardless of source material?
  • Manfred effectively loses his sense of identity when his goggles are stolen, his personal cloud storage for his memory.  What sort of risks to identity, memory, and personality do we face as we as technology becomes a more integral part of the human experience and who we are?  Can identity be outsourced?  How does external storage of memories leave us vulnerable?
  • Technology remakes our lives, how does it remake religion?  How does ability to upload and download your personality, to fork your existence change concepts of morality, right and wrong, sin, redemption, heaven and hell?
"The Church of Latter-Day Saints believes that you can't get into the Promised Land unless it's baptized you - it can do so if it knows your name and parentage, even after you're dead. Its genealogical databases are among the most impressive artifacts of historical research ever prepared. And it likes to make converts.
The Franklin Collective believes that you can't get into the future unless it's digitized your neural state vector, or at least acquired as complete a snapshot of your sensory inputs and genome as current technolgoy permits. You don't need to be alive for it to do this. Its society of mind is among the most impressive artifacts of computer science. And it likes to make converts."
  • Was Aineko sentient before the alien transmission?  Do you think the transmission had anything to do with her developing sentience?  They say that she wasn't "conscious" then, but what switched her to sentient.
  • One of the recurring discussions in the novel is when exactly the singularity happened.  Some argue that it has yet to happen, even in a world of uploaded existence, borg virtual intelligence, matrioska brains, dyson spheres, and quantum thought.  Others argue that it occurred in 1969 when the first network control protocol packets were went.  What are your thoughts on the concept of the singularity?  A moment of yet-to-be reached machine intelligence, an event that has already occurred, a merging of man and machine, or something else entirely?
  • Economic and political theory are often intertwined, but are still distinct concepts.  In the social and technological evolution in Accelerando they have become reinvented and in some cases merged.  What happens when your personality becomes capital?  What do you think would happen in a truly virtual economy, one with native digital lifeforms?  What about a culture in which a multiple-personalities is not a disorder but a matter of daily life among your own forked personalities and freedom from set physical form?  What makes something valuable as currency?
  • How is age counted, life quantified, when your childhood can be reset and repeated?  What does it mean when you can fork your personality and explore multiple futures before merging into a single "person" again.  What does this do to the concept of a person?
  • Is failing to grow old 'immoral', as Pamela says?
  • Who's story is Accelerando?
Source: libromancersapprentice.blogspot.com/2014/11/book-review-accelerando.html
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review 2014-07-11 20:12
[Book Review] Space Opera
Space Opera - Rich Horton,Kage Baker,Elizabeth Bear,Jay Lake

 "More than five-hundred pages, over one-quarter of a million words...

Space Opera spans a vast range of epic interstellar adventure stories told against a limitless cosmos filled with exotic aliens, heroic characters, and incredible settings. A truly stellar compilation of tales from one of the defining streams of science fiction, old and new, written by a supernova of genre talent.

Edited by Rich Horton with stories from Kage Baker, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Robert Reed, Alastair Reynolds and others."


This is a weighty tomb of fantastical science fiction.  In this collection you will find tales of human and alien diaspora, quests, madness, and larger than life settings.  There are some very interesting character devices, and imaginative settings.  I picked up this book recognizing only a few of the contributing authors, which I find is often a perk of short story collections.  Not all of the stories were to my taste, but others I greatly enjoyed. 

Within the wrappings of fantastical space travel and alien worlds there are some serious themes and undercurrents.  The stories themselves may be short, but they are not insubstantial.  I actually would like to re-read this book at a later date, as a print book and not a digital file (particularly not one with a time limit).  Some of these stories would benefit from a second reading, and give the stories that I did not fully engage with another chance.

It is worthwhile to note that this is not the first collection titled Space Opera curated by Rich Horton, and that the earlier edition has a different set of authors.

If you enjoy space operas you will likely find at least several stories here that you like, but I wouldn't recommend the book for those who are more interested in the harder science side of science fiction.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Source: libromancersapprentice.blogspot.com/2014/07/book-review-space-opera.html
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review 2014-06-24 01:12
[Book Review] Mappa Mundi
Mappa Mundi - Justina Robson

Natalie Armstrong sees the world, and the mind, differently.  She's on the cutting edge of innovation using technology to repair and bridge neural pathways.  But what can heal can also hurt, and her technology is leaked to the less scrupulous and less patient.  So starts a game of cat and mouse with ethics, identity, and humanity and its center.

Mappa Mundi is a brilliant science fiction novel that asks questions about mind and matter as we know it.  It was the May pick for the Virtual Speculation bookclub and a book I highly recommend reading.

Discussion Fodder:

  • How do our fears and insecurities shape our beliefs as children?  Do the stories and beliefs we tell each other to keep terror at bay count as a type of magic?  How do we use non-belief in handling our fears?
  • "To put it another way, the development of Mappa Mundi, as all such developments, was a necessary result of our own nature, as irresistible as evolution itself.  What we can change, we shall change.  What comes to hand, we shall use.  What we see we presume to understand.  When the basic needs are satisfied, the restless mind turns itself towards improvement."  Do you think this is an accurate evaluation of humanity?
  • Is "perfection" the goal of technology?
  • Is Natalie insane?  Was she ever?  Does she process the world differently than those around her?  What is the nature of sanity and identity in Mappa Mundi (hunting with George, Guskov's history, Mary and Natalie)?  "But neither of them would have seen this if Ivanov had not been Hilel and all those men after."
  • What do you make of Guskov?  Is he either a hero or villain?  An idealist, something else altogether?  Does his history effect how you feel about him?
  • Is Bobby X "alive"?  Are he and Natalie still human?  If not, at what point did they stop being human?
  • What do you think of Bobby X's statement that "Matter [...] is energy plus information." 
  • Mary says that "religion is already a contagion," in reference to security procedures and the Mappaware leak.  Do you think there is truth to that description in how religion spreads and changes?
  • How does reprogramming a brain mechanically compare to conditioning and brainwashing?
  • What do you think about the inclusion of technology (pads) that has become everyday that did not exist at the time of publication (original publication date 2001, close to a decade before we started seeing tablets)?
Source: libromancersapprentice.blogspot.com/2014/06/book-review-mappa-mundi.html
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review 2014-05-05 12:24
[Book Review] Hollow World
Hollow World - Michael J Sullivan

When Ellis Rogers is told he has little time left to live, laughter is probably not the response his doctor expected.  Laughter may not be how he expect to react to news of his looming mortality.  But as it turns out Ellis Rogers may have all the time in the world, or if he's wrong, no time at all.

After all, he's lived a good life, with a mind as sharp as ever, but what does he have holding him to this time?  Haunted by his son's suicide, estranged from his wife, and his best friend seems bitterly stuck in the past.  Whether the machine works or not, Ellis is looking at a one way trip, and he's OK with that.

The future is not what Ellis expected, arriving not 200 years, but 2000 years later in a forest seeming untouched by civilization.  And when he finds civilization he discovers that humanity itself has changed beyond his wildest imagination.  But all it takes is one fanatic out of time to threaten utopia, and Ellis will be caught once again between the life he knew and the life that could be.

Hollow World did not turn out to be the book I expected, based on the book blurb I read when selecting this title.

Ellis Rogers is a seemingly ordinary man who is about to embark on an extraordinary journey. All his life he has played it safe and done the right thing. But when he is faced with a terminal illness, Ellis is willing to take an insane gamble. He's secretly built a time machine in his garage, and if it works, he’ll face a utopian world that challenges his understanding of what it means to be human, what it takes to love, and what the cost of paradise really might be.

Ellis could find more than a cure for his disease; he might find what everyone has been searching for since time has begun — but only if he can survive Hollow World.

To me that reads more as if he must escape the Hollow World to get to the utopia than surviving a threat to Hollow World.  Accidental misdirection aside, I found Hollow World to be an enjoyable science fiction novel with well integrated social commentary.  I like the discussion of gender and sexuality that this future brings up.  The one problem I had was that the point of the story was muddled.  At the end everything ties together, but before we get to Ellis' epiphany regarding love the book reads more as if the point is about the dangers of fanaticism and the trap of uniformity.

In a note unrelated to the plot itself, this book has raised my esteem for the publishing house handling the physical edition.  Sullivan talks about the writing and publication process regarding Hollow World in his afterward, and once he made the decision to self-publish the ebook he wanted to retain the ebook rights.  Print-only rights are not something publishers want to purchase these days unless the author has major clout.  Tachyon Publications took his offer, allowing Sullivan to keep the ebook rights while they handle the print publication and distribution.  I think that's really cool.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Source: libromancersapprentice.blogspot.com/2014/05/book-review-hollow-world.html
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