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review 2017-03-17 01:17
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer
Version Control: A Novel - Dexter Palmer

I'm seeing a theme in this year's Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.


Dexter Palmer's Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services--to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.


Palmer's novel is marketed as "time travel like you've never seen it before." I'll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I'm easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.


The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of "the best of all possible worlds" is central; when it's inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist's husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go--or don't go--by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the "causation violation" chamber, a new timeline branches off.


Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something's not right, but can't explain what. She's not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don't understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist's son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn't see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?


Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn't quite come together for me. I didn't particularly like or care about any of the characters; I'd say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.

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review 2017-02-20 20:56
Pirate Utopia - Bruce Sterling,Warren Ellis,Christopher Brown,Rick Klaw

Surprisingly firm in its literary feel. RIYL Pynchon, Burroughs, etc.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-01-14 17:03
The Unseen World, by Liz Moore
The Unseen World: A Novel - Liz Moore

From the Tournament of Books longlist.


Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I'll mark), but I'll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the '80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father's identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father's past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.


Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:

I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father's lab mate and later Ada's guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.


I liked how David's choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David's history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston's boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she's letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.


My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she's immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she's likely operating at above grade level.


Non-spoilery elements I wasn't crazy about:

Liston's sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada's growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don't see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.


Though the mystery and reveal of David's identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos...).


Ada's one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she's unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it's a familiar type that's come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.


In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada's whole world). She should trust her readers more.




Returning to an item from above, the revelation of David's queerness and work history in government put his choices in raising Ada in much-needed context. His mistrust of authority, his emphasis on education and thinking for oneself, his near sequestering of Ada, all come to feel less like strictness and eccentricity and more like sane choices.


My biggest gripe is the last chapter and epilogue. The former reminds me of Harry Potter's epilogue where we're given a predictable Happily Ever After of the sort some readers like or require; I would have preferred the story end with the section in 2009. The latter is an unnecessary "twist" that suddenly puts the novel in SF territory; it reminded me of the end of the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I can guess the intent--another "child" brought up uniquely, an objective observer to give the story context (e.g. people make mistakes, hurt each other, etc.), but suddenly learning the story's been told by an A.I. is too much of a rug-puller. Still, it wasn't awful enough to sour my enjoyment of the rest.

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review 2016-11-19 16:37
Pirate Utopia
Pirate Utopia - Bruce Sterling,Warren Ellis,Christopher Brown,Rick Klaw

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

A book that, to me, was more interesting for the world it developed than for its actual plot—I'd definitely like to see this "Futurist 1920s Italia/Europe/USA" revisited and developed more, especially for what the author does with famous figures and events of that time period.

So. It is 1920 in Fiume, and this town poised between Italia and Croatia is run by pirates: anarchists and artists, writers and syndicalists, all at once, boasting ideals and beliefs in the Future, taking over factories and throwing away rich capitalists. It is 1920, and Communism has been alive and kicking for quite a while. Gabriele d'Annunzio is the Prophet (and the man who really established the Republic of Carnaro in our world, too); Harry Houdini, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are working as flamboyant spies for the US government; and in Berlin, a young man by the name of Adolf dies to protect another man in a bar brawl, thus never starting on the path he will be known for in our History. And he's not the one, far from it.

I loved what Bruce Sterling did with this alternate history, dieselpunk Europe, full of contradictions: praise for the Future and strong beliefs and angular colourful clothes; rambunctious pirates proud of their ways, fascists with minds turned towards a different ideology, and engineers stealing armoured cars from the rioters who stole them first; beautiful and mysterious artist women, and a magician without fear who may or may not be human; but also factories churning torpedoes, small guns produced by the hundreds and used as currency, manifestos and propaganda, and a mounting tendency towards a new war.

A constant energy permeated the narrative, nervous and stressful in parts, ecstatic in others, and it provided for a fascinating read. There's humour and pulp and inventions and scary ideas as well in there. There's speed and technology and violence, carried by a youthful spirit—in one word, Futurismo—reflected in the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. Delightful.

What I regret is that it didn't go further. This is more a novella, and one that stops at a turning point that I would so much have wanted to see developed and explored. (In an interview, the author explains his choice, and the writer in me can totally understand it; still, the reader in me felt sad at leaving that alternate world so soon.)

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Mr Sterling, are you going to revisit this world soon? Please.

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review 2016-11-11 03:19
Utopia - Thomas More,Paul Turner

It's nice to finally have something concrete to associate with the term "utopia" beyond just the typical fantastical ravings of the curious mind. Both thought provoking and fascinating to consider in terms of what this work is as a work of fiction, "Utopia" falls somewhere between easy and difficult in terms of reading, partly due to More's writing style. The writing does occasionally feel extraneous and meandering in an unnecessary way, but the ideas which More puts forth are as interesting as they are fun to think about at times. Some passages, like the way in which Utopians consider gold and jewels to be trinkets for children, how they adorn their slaves with it because they believe that, since there isn't an abundance of these things on earth, then they aren't necessary for everyday life (which is quite true). It was also quite beneficial to read and discuss this for an actual class, so that these ideas could be grounded using theory and modern examples. It's particularly pertinent to read this now, both to see how our conception of what a utopia has changed over time, but also to compare and see if our modern society has achieved in checking any of these things off the list in its (frequently failed) attempts at being better.

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