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review 2015-04-08 10:54
Reamde - 4 good novels doesn't necessarily make 1 great novel
Reamde - Neal Stephenson

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 3
boobs: 1
bombs: 4
bondage: 1
blasphemy: 1
Stars: 3
Bechdel Test: PASS
Deggan's Rule: PASS
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.

When I started this book, I was using an AG2 running MoonReader. My pageview wasn't setup to include page or screen counts. I had no idea this book comes in at over 1000 pages (according to Amazon's count), and to be honest if I'dve known that I probably would've DNF'd at 10%. I didn't figure out it was so long until around (virtual) page 250 and I thought to myself, "This has been going on for a long time, and yet more complications are being added and nothing is getting resolved - how is this going to get wrapped up?" By that time I'd become invested in a couple of the characters, and my ego decided to make this into some sort of titanic battle of my will to continue vs. Mr. Stephenson's verbosity.

My ego won. Despite a catastrophe with my AG2 with 100 screens left to go, I finished the book. Do I feel edified? No. Entertained? Meh; there was some great parts and there were a lot of very long stretches that needed an editor's red swipe. Accomplished? You betcha.

There are 4 different 250 page thrillers in this book. Any one of them could stand alone and do well with the techno/thriller/pre-cyberpunk crowd that Neil writes for. Smashing the four of these together was ambitious, and I feel like I understand why Mr. Stephenson felt like this book needed so many storylines, but I don't know if it really needed to be this complicated to say what he was trying to say. I value brevity and succinctness[1] and Reamde had very little of either. Choosing a single plot thread, then backing it up with hints and wisps from the other plotlines would have made for a much stronger product in this reader's opinion. The fact is, some of the plotlines were weak and needed inordinate amounts of filler to shore them up and try to get them stand on their own.

And therein lies the crux of my problem with this book. There is way too much filler. At least 250 pages worth of unnecessary asides and descriptions could be wiped from the book with no detriment to the plot whatsoever. Here's a short list from the top of my head of some descriptive passages that went on for several screens without any advancement of the plot:
    Setting up a TOR node on a shared PC
    Lore regarding grizzly bears' ability to smell
    Building a secured cell inside an RV
    Querying a database
These would all be great if I were looking for documentation on any of these topics, but I wasn't. And that's just what I recalled with a few seconds of effort; the whole book is peppered with a level of detail that is wholly unnecessary.  I was trying to enjoy a story about an unlikely band of characters thrown together by fate and trying to outsmart a caricature of the 21st Century Boogeyman: A dark skinned jihadist who looks and talks just like middle class white folks.

To make these wildly different characters get vested in the same outcome required some serious shenanigans on behalf of the writer. The terms "contrived", "outlandish" and "almost ridiculous" come to mind. Of course the world is full of amazing coincidences and near misses; but relying on whole consecutive steps of unliklihoods to drive a plot feels more appropriate to a comedy of errors than a techno thriller. The characters in this book move through a bubble where normal statistics don't apply. It was fun for the first few hundred pages, then it became tiresome, and by the end it was just another annoyance I had to put up with to get to to the finish line.

The characters themselves don't feel like they're "getting lucky", but neither do comic book heroes. All our main characters are interesting in their own right, and voiced well, but there's a very strong sense the characters get moved around and motivated according to the outline the author sketched before writing the book, rather than organically going where they need to go. Characterization, never one of Mr. Stephenson's strong points, isn't weaker in this book than in the others I've read but it feels like it's worse because it goes on for so long.

I liked the different settings, and the scene building was handled very well. I felt like I had a sense of place in all the locations. The settings were "voiced" like a character, and lent their own flavor to the parts of the story they related to. I wouldn't say the scene building was vivid (except where descriptions went on too long) but it was very evocative. A good chunk of action happens in Seattle, and having lived there for a number of years I can say that he captured the feel of the town and the Cascade Mountains perfectly. I can only assume he was as accurate with the other settings.

The finale, like the rest of the book, was way too wordy and took way too long to wrap up. I wanted to hurry up and finish it just to find out who pulled the trigger that killed the Big Bad Guy; I was still invested in some of the characters but I had no expectations that they would suddenly arc in a surprising direction. By the time the final gun battle shapes up, all the characters are finally in place and it felt like it was just a matter of putting words into my eyes until I reached the end of the book.

I'm feeling a difficulty trying to rate this; my enjoyment of the book declined the closer I got to the end. The beginning was everything I expected from this author and I was set to star the heck out of it, but then it just went on way too long without doing anything clever. In a lot of ways, this book is like that guy you work with who's really smart and mildly autistic - it just drones on and on about the minutae of some inane topic despite every cue that you're ready to wrap up the conversation.

[1] But I don't like poetry - go figure

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review 2015-03-08 16:07
Engineering Infinity - Engineered itself a new fanboy
Engineering Infinity (The Infinity Project Book 1) - Charles Stross,Gwyneth Jones,John Barnes,Hannu Rajaniemi,Stephen Baxter,Kristine Kathryn Rusch,John C. Wright,Karl Schroeder,Robert Reed,Jonathan Strahan

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 3
boobs: 1
bombs: 3
bondage: 4
blasphemy: 4
Stars: 5
Bechdel Test: PASS
Deggan's Rule: PASS
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.

This is a big book. I don't use the "count pages" plugin in Calibre, but AZN says it's 400 kindle pages. Some of these shorts would qualify as novellas on their own. It took me a long time to get through it (short bursts before I fell asleep at night) but it was totally worth the effort. I actually finished each story in this anthology which is a rarity for me - most collections have at least one dud that I give up on. I wasn't familiar with the editor Jonathan Strahan before I bought this; Peter Watts and Charles Stross sold the book to me. I still haven't read any of Jonathan's books, but I've become a big fan of his ability to put a collection of stories together and I've already bought the next two anthologies in the Infinity Project series. I finished the book a few days ago but I wanted some time to digest the book before I wrote some gushingly fanboyish review.

The styles of these stories run the gamut from "free form speculative fiction" all the way to "old school hard science fiction". There's a couple of "creature feature" stories in here, but it's not about the critters as much as it is about how humans can adapt and change. Engineering has been described as "the application of science", and to that end all of these stories examine the dialectic relationship of human(ish) peoples to adapt to the reality of the world around them, and in turn adapt the reality to peoples' needs. All of the stories are thoughtful, well written and each of the authors is now on my "their name will help sell books to me" list. This is an example of what I expect from an anthology - I want to be challenged, I want to have my horizons expanded, and I want a series of knockout punches that together add up to a whole greater than the parts. This book delivers on all counts.

'Malak' by Peter Watts
    - A semiautonomous drone is programmed to assess the value of collateral damage before striking, and while optimizing it's algorithms to determine the easiest way to avoid politically costly civilian deaths it comes to some unexpected conclusions. I'm a HUGE fan of Peter Watts, and this story does not disappoint. Another knockout example of how dark, cynical and dystopic near futures needn't be cut from the same cloth as Neuromancer to be chillingly effective. Also, Peter did a spectacular job of writing from the POV of the drone without sounding like PacMan or Robocop, which is no small feat.

'Watching the Music Dance' by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
    - Over the last few years, major software sellers have been moving away from the boxed model - where you buy an unlimited license for a version - and replaced it with a subscription model, where you pay a much smaller fee every month and get a limited time license but all upgrades are included. This has caused no small amount of consternation among sizable number of consumers who want to own their tools outright. Software running on a computer is one thing, but what about software we install into our brains? To whom do we want to be beholden to with regards to neurological enhancements: The companies making products? Parents trying to give their young children every possible chance to succeed? This is a poignant story that addresses these questions and leaves the reader with a number of questions to ponder rather than a tidy conclusion.
'Laika's Ghost' by Karl Schroeder
    - Not the strongest story in the bunch, but that's a reflection of the overall quality of the collection rather than any real weakness in this story. What starts off as a straightforward cyberpunky conspiracy story a'la "young hacker finds out too much, has to go into hiding from Big Corporation" turns into a byzantine world where the conspiracy is much bigger and a lot older than Big Corporation, and has implications for everyone on the planet. Well written and very atmospheric, this story falls short of the others because I felt like it didn't really sink it's teeth into some of the questions it raises.

'The Invasion of Venus' by Stephen Baxter
    - Every so often, while reading SciFi, I run across a story that verbalizes so much more eloquently than I could my ideas about how Some Big Event would play out in reality. The Big Event in this case is "discovering alien intelligences", and the way it plays out is "They're not even a little bit interested in a bunch of primates flinging poo at each other on some watery ball of mud". The story plays out as an extended allegorical conversation between a scientist and a woo-woo vaguely theistic character who are trying to come to grips with the knowledge that humanity is only the center of it's own world, and is inconsequential on the interstellar scale.

'The Server and the Dragon' by Hannu Rajaniemi
    - A long, long time after the singularity and in a star system far, far away the fruits of technology are far from safe. What is the relationship between predator and prey in the interstellar scale? This is another of the (relatively) weaker stories in the collection; I felt it took a long time to get to where it's going, but one could make an argument that that helps to show the monumental scale of how these sorts of things play out.

'Bit Rot' by Charles Stross
    - I have no doubt posterity will remember this as the seminal Post-Human zombie story. In Charles's entirely capable hands, the story stays entirely clear of the obvious horror tropes and stays firmly in the scifi camp, even though it's basically a zombie story played out on an interstellar ship manned by post-humans many generations removed from their biologically bound progenitors. An excellent read, and a fantastic demonstration of how no matter how capable and how carefully you plan, something can always go catastrophically wrong.

'Creatures with Wings' by Kathleen Ann Goonan
    - This story could've been a disaster, but careful writing saved it. It veered dangerously close to reading like one of those intensely allegorical inward journey of self discovery, but deftly avoided feeling like I was witnessing the author mentally masturbating while gazing deeply into her navel. That's a fine line to walk along a slippery slope, and major kudos to the author for staying on the straight and narrow. While I'm not even a little bit religious in the slightest, I do have a soft spot for the Buddhists and this story is driven by Buddhist principles and ideals. The first of two stories that try to provide a scifi retelling of classic religious tales, I think this one works much better than the other and it's certainly left a more lasting impression on me.

'Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone' by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar
    - A very well written story that tries to work out how time travelling paradoxes could be self-healing. Not much going in the way of characterization or setting, but the plot moves along well and it was very well written. The quality of the writing, in that it stays out of the way and paints details only where they're needed, is what made this otherwise pedestrian story maintain the caliber of the rest of the collection.

'Mantis' by Robert Reed
    - The most unashamedly postmodern of the stories, this plays on the idea that every window works both ways and then tries to push the analogy into the quantum realms by having the viewers effect the viewed - eg, everyone somehow effects each other even though they can only observe each other but not communicate. Not the strongest story in the book, but it's a notch or two above the likes of "Laika's Ghost" or "Mercies".

Judgement Eve, John C. Wright
    - The second SciFi retelling of a religious parable, this time the subject is the ejection of mankind from the Garden of Eden from the Abrahamaic traditions. The characters and the world they inhabit felt to me like a pale rehash of Walter Jon Williams' "Aristoi", though to be fair only a wee part of creation and a tiny cast of characters is important to this story so maybe the sample is skewed. I didn't feel particularly impressed by this rendition of what the fall could be like in a post-humanist, nano-machine enabled world and I found myself skimming hoping something unexpected would happen. I got to the end of story with no surprises. "Mantis" is the better religious parable in this collection.

A Soldier of the City, David Moles
    - A lost soldier, hopelessly cut off from the unit to which he owes fanatical allegiance, wins the hearts and minds of a distant and backwards people while in turn learning to be more empathic and understanding of other cultures. Not unlike the movie Soldier, actually. Except different - much more talking and a lot less action. I liked the world building, and any story where gods walk among mortals - and themselves can be killed by megatonnage weoponry - has my interest right away.

Mercies, Gregory Benford
    - Oh my. In Formula One racing right now, there's a debate going on about the cost of competing in the sport. The school of thought I subscribe to believes that the backmarker teams - less well funded, and who will never win races let alone championships - are a vital part of the sport because they make sure the big name teams never come in last and their sponsors never have to face the indignity of being on a car at the bottom of the results listing. I feel like this story does the same job for this book. There just wasn't anything new or interesting in the plot, the writing was average with some big plot holes and stiff dialogue, the premise was shaky at best, the setting was perpetually unpolished and I never found myself caring what happened to the protagonist. Other than all that, though, it was a good story.

The Ki-anna, Gwyneth Jones
    - This story has all the characterization and world building that's lacking in Mercies, with an interesting noirish detective thriller thrown in for good measure. It was a very enjoyable little "trek" story - ostensibly, it's about getting the protagonist from an orbiting station down to the surface of the planet and into a temple, but slowly and delightfully the plot thickens until all the players are trying to get somewhere physically and emotionally. An interesting story with some direct references to contemporary race and class struggles that works on a variety of levels, and has definitely put Gwyneth Jones on my watch list.

The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees, John Barnes
    - Probably the most relatable story to our contemporary world, it's placed in the near future where the first post-humans are still regarded as anomolous superstars. After using exophysics to try to tame rampant climate change, humans come to understand that for as much as we believe the anthropocene era is the most cataclysmic chapter in earth's history, the fact is we're still just a bunch of baby faced primates who just got here a few years ago - and our idea of "status quo" is hopelessly faulted by our tiny little sample size.

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review 2015-02-25 19:04
Zero Sum Game - Adds up to a Positive Integer
Zero Sum Game (Russell's Attic) - SL Huang

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 4
boobs: 0
bombs: 4
bondage: 2
blasphemy: 1
Stars: 3
Bechdel Test: Pass
Deggan's Rule: Pass
Gay Bechdel Test: Fail

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.

I read this about three weeks ago and forgot to do a review. I recollect an action/adventure thriller that was enjoyable enough, but the simple plot and gimmicky use of the heroine's superpower detracted from what could have been a great book. From the cover and some of the marketing verbiage I get the sense that this is supposed to by a cyberpunky sort of story, but it's not set far enough into the future nor has technology progressed enough to start fracturing the definition of humanity. It's set in the very near future in southern California which ticked another of my favorite pet peeve boxes. I've long railed against movies written in Los Angeles about people in Los Angeles that are in turn filmed in Los Angeles. It's a big planet and I think we should explore the rest of it. After reading this book, it turns out books set near Los Angeles where the weather is always so perfect it needn't be mentioned get my gourd as well.

This isn't an Urban Fantasy book. We know this because our spunky heroine doesn't use magic, she uses math. But the way it's presented and used, it might as well be magic. My fellow unix peeps will understand what I'm saying here:
cat ${text} | sed s/math/magic/g
Our heroine is able to not necessarily "bend the rules" of physics, but take advantage of all the improbable loopholes. Conveniently, she's not just smarter but also faster and stronger than most people. And it's so hard being so much smarter and tougher than everyone else, too! As important as "math" is to the main character, the math wasn't developed at all - it just happens as if she were casting a spell or using a relic. Example: she's in a jam, she does "some MATH" and suddenly she's able to do a roundhouse kick through a second-story window from a standing start on the ground. This is not Charles Stross style math, this is Math As Mysticism. I started this book hoping the math would be intense but it's not. The use of the word "vector" is about as technical as it gets:

My leap took me high in an arc above the grimy pavement twenty feet below, a long moment of weightlessness before my shoulder slammed into the concrete wall above Tresting’s window. Time seemed to slow. In hundredths of a second I was going to fall; my margin for error was almost nonexistent. I looked down at the two-story drop below me, equations unspooling in my head, the acceleration of gravity tumbling through every incarnation of every possible assignment of variables, and I flattened my arm against the cinderblocks, forcing friction to delay me the slightest touch. Vector diagrams of normal force and gravitational pull and kinetic friction roared through my senses. Just before gravity won and sucked me into a two-story plunge to the alleyway below, I dropped the SIG.
It outstripped me by the smallest fraction of a second, and as it fell between the bars and the top lip of the wall above the window, I shot out my left foot and came down on it with my entire body weight. The frame of the handgun slammed against the bars on one side and the top lip of the window on the other with all the force a simple machine could harness, and became my very own makeshift crowbar.

The pacing of the book was frenetic; all action all the time. I didn't mind this so much, but I think some more downtime to give the characters some room to grow would have been appropriate. Most of the characters were very stiff, and while pains had been taken to make sure the tropes were uniquely voiced, all of the characters were still the typical cast you'd expect in a thriller. Again, they were all voiced and characterized well enough but I wouldn't call any of these characters especially memorable.

This book was a very quick read, and easy enough to digest. Not especially memorable or amazingly well written, but certainly better than a lot of the swill that's out there. I believe this is the author's first book, and I hope s/he continues to write and improve his/her craft. Not everyone is at the top of their game on their first try, but this is a much better showing than most first books. The book avoids so many of the pitfalls of the genre (like lame love interests) and shows a willingness to try something new which counts for a lot for me. This book was no Th1rte3n, but it wasn't a waste of time either.

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review 2015-02-11 18:29
Neuromancer - Can a book be one of your best friends?
Neuromancer - William Gibson

I've felt like I've been in a bit of a reading rut lately. It feels like I've been unimpressed by most of the books I've read lately, but I've been getting my recommendations from the same sources and following the same due-diligence procedures as I have in the past. I refuse to believe books are getting worse - while there are many more shitty books being produced then in years past, there are also more good books being produced recently as well. Therefore the most likely culprit for my malaise is myself. Have my tastes changed without my realization? Has my tolerance for anything less than completely amazing shrunk? Am I just generally grumpy and upset and taking it out on my readings?

When the going gets tough, the tough reassess their datum. So I reread Neuromancer for the umpteenth time last week. I don't even know how many times I've read it - at least three dozen times is a rational guess. I read it the first time as a wee lad when it first came out and it completely blew me away. This was back in the days when email addresses used exclamation points instead of ampersands, a megabyte was an unfathomably huge chunk of storage, and the nascent internet held all the promise of a bright and glorious future of an interconnected humanity sharing their science, hopes and dreams. We've come to an interconnected first world sharing pictures of cats, so I guess the dream isn't totally destroyed yet - but I digress.

Neuromancer has spoken to me throughout my life: as a troubled teen, an aimless young adult, an alcoholic adult and a sober middle aged person different parts of the book have syncopated with my thoughts and feelings and not provided answers as much as provided a language for mapping my internal spaces. The way the setting unfolds from every character's position like a tesseract designed by a technofetishist doing rails of coke the size of Sharpies, how every character is filled with loneliness and wrapped in fear but is searching for a way to accommodate their need for companionship resonates with me in a way I can't describe without sounding like a ridiculous fanboy. Which I am, to be honest, but I'll spare us all the details.

So, yeah, I reread my all time most favorite book to see if I'd changed unbeknownst to myself. It turns out I haven't. If anything I appreciate it more as I grow older. I don't look up to Case and Molly like I used to; I don't want to be them or imagine myself living their life (ok, maybe a little...) but instead I think I can appreciate them more as characters that live their own lives separate from me. Even as my relationship with Case, Molly, Finn, Dixie, Wintermute and Rio evolve the world they live in is familiar and comfortable as a well worn blanket, a safe haven of lawless bright lights and technomagic.

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review 2015-01-30 14:32
The Martian - Making Mars Accessible
The Martian - Andy Weir

Brainycat's 5 "B"s:
blood: 1
boobs: 0
bombs: 0
bondage: 0
blasphemy: 0
Stars: 3 (which is 1.86 in Martian gravity)
Bechdel Test: FAIL
Deggan's Rule: FAIL
Gay Bechdel Test: FAIL

Please note: I don't review to provide synopses, I review to share a purely visceral reaction to books and perhaps answer some of the questions I ask when I'm contemplating investing time and money into a book.

This is probably the definitive feel-good story for interplanetary botanists everywhere. I can see how this got the funding to get made into a movie; it's a straightforward story with plenty of precedent so audiences won't feel challenged. Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a feel good story cleverly wrapped up in a scifi flag. Our intrepid hero Mark Watney is a study in charisma and I admit I feel a bit of a bro-crush on the fella. I was drawn into his celebrations and disappointments as his strategy for survival unfolded through his log/diary. It's a credit to the author that he made the monotony of marooned survival as exciting as he did.

The pacing is done very well in the purely literary sense, but I feel it was too dramatically perfect to feel realistic. And this is where the book loses a star. The peaks of his successes and the valleys of his failures line up too well; disasters strike at the most opportune time to advance the plot and all of the emotional highs happen on right on cue as our resident Martian completes his Major Projects.

But as so many journals and accounts of marooned people have shown us through the ages, it's not the major accomplishments that define the person or determine the likelihood of survival. It's how the person deals with the day in, day out monotony of solitude and hard labor. It's the gradual physiological changes and the evolution of psychological coping strategies that, in recollection, mark the passage of time. Daily tasks take on enormous importance - but we never learn about the day to life of Mark. Mark himself never really changes; he just disassembles and reassembles some stuff and travels around Mars until finally the [ending I won't spoil]. This illustration of "good ol' immutable American exceptionalism" loses the book a second star.

I've seen some reviews that lambasted the science for being too accessible, and some reviews that feel the science is too obtuse. This shows me the author got it right. I don't think there's anything wrong with the science, but there were certainly some presents lobbed into Mark's court that were there just to fill in some logical holes. I would have liked to see more detail, especially around the chemistry. But my entire background is in science and I do engineering for a living. I had a lot of fun "playing along" and solving some of the problems; but if a proper engineer who thinks about putting people onto stellar bodies all day long were to write a book I'm sure I'd like that more than I liked this book.

It's a quick read and very accessible; this is book was not even fractionally as ambitious as Red Mars. And while KSR's Mars trilogy will forever be amongst my favorite books, this book just doesn't have the depth or breadth to make any lasting impact.

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