Archive for John Scalzi

a journal of the plague year [confined reviews]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2020 by xi'an

Watched TV series His Dark Materials produced for the BBC, which is much much better than the earlier film, as the actors are all fabulous—first and foremost Lyra, but also Ma Costa, the Gyptian Muter Courage—, the gypsy community is given a much stronger role, the characters are deep and complex, as eg Mrs and Mr Coulter, both ready to sacrifice kids for the greater “good” without appearing as absolute monsters! The special effects are a wee bit deficient as often with BBC productions but not enough to make a case. Although I sort of cringed each time a bear moved!

Read The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks, which I noticed standing on my son’s bookshelves. The original Shannara Trilogy was one of the very first fantasy books I read in English in my undergrad years (after Lord of the Rings of course and possibly The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), which did not leave me with an everlasting feeling of superlative literature, to say the least. This avatar of the original Sword of Shannara trilogy did nothing to improve my feelings as the plot is lazy at best, with super-powered villains suddenly acting, last second deus ex machina rescues, endless internal debates, heavy hints at treacheries and double-treacheries, and, worst of all!, intrusion of 20th century technology, e.g., computers, AIs and robots, that the far future characters make sense of. Only suitable for a time of lockdown and even then… I should have left it on the bookshelf! Incidentally, one fight scene against a cyborg was highly reminiscent of the black knight scene in Holy Grail!

Watched by chance Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. For the first time. And was totally un-impressed. Highly pretentious construction falling flat from being a modern reconstruction of antique dramas, endless dialogues (which could have been cut by half if removing all the occurrences of fucking from them), boring and threadbare story, and artificial characters that essentially make no sense. I cannot fathom why this film is so highly ranked..! (And even less to witness it being compared with Rashomon!)

Read [part] of Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳) but, lockdown or not, I simply could not finish it. Despite its fantasy approach to Chinese martial arts, which I usually enjoy (at least in planes!), and some proximity with the Judge Dee stories by van Gulik, the story felt very contrived and somewhat out of reach, plus [not yet] Genghis Khan being depicted in a fairly positive way [at least in the part I read]. Too irrealist for my reading buds, I presume…

Cooked plenty of new dishes, thanks to the delivery of weekly farmer boxes, from radish stems & buckwheat pancakes to celery roots purées, to fregola sarda (leftovers from ISBA 2016!) con acciughe, to chard gratins, to pea pod and cauliflower core soups, to flaxseed bread and buckwheat naans (as we ran out of wheat flour). We also managed to use and survive most of the out-of-date cans and bags that had stood forgotten in the back of our cupboard… Not visiting a supermarket for two months was actually most pleasant, living very nicely from the above mentioned farmer boxes and the occasional delivery from a cheesemonger, and supplementing weekly visits to the baker with attempts at home made bread.

Read Matha Well’s Murderbot diaries, my first read on a Kindle!, for free courtesy of Tor. Starting with All Systems Red, which won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Locus Award, and the American Library Association‘s Alex Award. Very good if somewhat classical (Blade Runner anyone?!) trope of the rogue robot turned autonomous and human, so human! This is a sequence of novellas which means a fast-paced story and an efficient style. (Including a less exciting third novella, due to a lazy scenario.) More mind-candy à la John Scalzi than profound literature but quite enjoyable for a quick read during lunch or tea break! But which induced me to buy the first and incoming novel in the series,  Network Effect. (To be commented in a subsequent entry…)

Leading to (re)read the Interdependency trilogy by John Scalzi, the last volume in the series being just out. Very lazy buildup, in the traditional spirit of a few people driving the future of the entire Universe, with unlimited resources and unrestricted hacking abilities, but with funny dialogues, as usual with Scalzi. In this binge (re)read, I actually realised the frustrating intricacies of Kindle ordering as (i) I could not use my amazon.com account and hence none of my associate gains (ii) I could not merge several amazon.fr accounts and (iii) prices varied a lot between using directly the Kindle and ordering from amazon.fr…

And even growing some salads and radishes over the two months and eating them before the end of the lockdown, as the weather in Paris was quite mild most of the time. Although it meant a daily-basis fight with slugs. The arugula did not resist that well, though…

Reading Tade Thompson’s Rosewater for more than a month, having trouble keeping my concentration as the story goes in loops and not a particularly well settled plot. With a central idea of an alien race taking over humanity a few cells at a time. Which reminded me of Greg Bear’s Blood Music I read during the first year of my PhD. The book has some appeal, from being located in Nigeria 30 years from now to America having completely vanished from the map after Trump pulled the ultimate drawbridge. It won the 2019 Arthur Clarke Award after all! But I found it too hard to complete to even consider embarking upon the next two volumes on the trilogy…

space opera by John Scalzi [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2019 by xi'an

John Scalzi, author of the memorable Old Man’s War, has started a trilogy of which I only became aware recently (or more precisely became re-aware!), which has the perk of making two of the three books already published and hence available without a one or two year break. And having the book win the 2018 Locus Award in the meanwhile. This new series is yet again a space opera with space travel made possible by a fairly unclear Flow that even the mathematicians in the story have trouble understanding. And The Flow is used by guilds to carry goods and people to planets that are too hostile an environment for the “local” inhabitants to survive on their own. The whole setup is both homely and old-fashioned: the different guilds are associated with families, despite being centuries old, and the empire of 48 planets is still governed by the same dominant family, who also controls a fairly bland religion. Although the later managed to become the de facto religion.

“I’m a Flow physicist.  It’s high-order math. You don’t have to go out into the field for that.”

This does not sound much exciting, even for space operas, but things are starting to deteriorate when the novels start. Or more exactly, as hinted by the title, the Empire is about to collapse! (No spoiler, since this is the title!!!) However, the story-telling gets a wee bit lazy from that (early) point. In that it fixates on a very few characters [among millions of billions of inhabitants of this universe] who set the cogs spinning one way then the other then the earlier way… Dialogues are witty and often funny, those few characters are mostly well-drawn, albeit too one-dimensional, and cataclysmic events seem to be held at bay by the cleverness of one single person, double-crossing the bad guys. Mostly. While the second volume (unusually) sounds better and sees more action, more surprises, and an improvement in the plot itself, and while this makes for a pleasant travel read (I forgot The Collapsing Empire in a plane from B’ham!), I am surprised at the book winning the 2018 Locus Award indeed. It definitely lacks the scope and ambiguity of the two Ancillary novels. The convoluted philosophical construct and math background of Anathem. The historical background of Cryptonomicon and of the Baroque Cycle. Or the singularity of the Hyperion universe. (But I was also unimpressed by the Three-Body Problem! And by Scalzi’s Hugo Award Redshirts!) The third volume is not yet out.

As a French aside, a former king turned AI is called Tomas Chenevert, on a space-ship called Auvergne, with an attempt at coming from a French speaking planet, Ponthieu, except that is should have been spelled Thomas Chênevert (green oak!). Incidentally, Ponthieu is a county in the Norman marches, north of Rouen, that is now part of Picardy, although I do not think this has anything to do with the current novel!

a new John Scalzi

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by xi'an

A new series by John Scalzi is about to get printed, with the first chapters available on Tor.com.

the forever war [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2015 by xi'an

Another book I bought somewhat on a whim, although I cannot remember which one… The latest edition has a preface by John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and its sequels, where he acknowledged he would not have written this series, had he previously read The Forever War. Which strikes me as ironical as I found Scalzi’s novels way better. Deeper. And obviously not getting obsolete so immediately! (As an aside, Scalzi is returning to the Old Man’s War universe with a new novel, The End of All Things.)

“…it’s easy to compute your chances of being able to fight it out for ten years. It comes to about two one-thousandths of one percent. Or, to put it another way, get an old-fashioned six-shooter and play Russian Roulette with four of the six chambers loaded. If you can do it ten times in a row without decorating the opposite wall, congratulations! You’re a civilian.”

This may be the main issue with The Forever War. The fact that it sounds so antiquated. And hence makes reading the novel like an exercise in Creative Writing 101, in order to spot how the author was so rooted in the 1970’s that he could not project far enough in the future to make his novel sustainable. The main issue in the suspension of belief required to proceed through the book is the low-tech configuration of Halderman’s future. Even though intergalactic travel is possible via the traditional portals found in almost every sci’-fi’ book, computers are blatantly missing from the picture. And so is artificial intelligence as well. (2001 A space odyssey was made in 1968, right?!) The economics of a forever warring Earth are quite vague and unconvincing. There is no clever tactics in the war against the Taurans. Even the battle scenes are far from exciting. Esp. the parts where they fight with swords and arrows. And the treatment of sexuality has not aged well. So all that remains in favour of the story (and presumably made the success of the book) is the description of the ground soldier’s life which could almost transcribe verbatim to another war and another era. End of the story. (Unsurprisingly, while being the first book picked for the SF MasterworksThe Forever War did not make it into the 2011 series…)

lock in [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2015 by xi'an

As mentioned in my recent review of Redshirts, I was planning to read John Scalzi’s most recent novel, Lock In, if only to check whether or not Redshirts was an isolated accident! This was the third book from “the pile” that I read through the Yule break and, indeed, it was a worthwhile attempt as the book stands miles above Redshirts

The story is set in a very convincing near-future America where a significant part of the population is locked by a super-flu into a full paralysis that forces them to rely on robot-like interfaces to interact with unlocked humans. While the book is not all that specific on how the robotic control operates, except from using an inserted “artificial neural network” inside the “locked-in” brains, Scalzi manages to make it sound quite realistic, with societal and corporation issues at the forefront. To the point of selling really well the (usually lame) notion of instantaneous relocation at the other end of the US. And with the bare minimum of changes to the current society, which makes it easier to buy. I have not been that enthralled by a science-fiction universe for quite a while. I also enjoyed how the economics of this development of a new class of citizens was rendered, the book rotating around the consequences of the ending of heavy governmental intervention in lock in research.

Now, the story itself is of a more classical nature in that the danger threatening the loked-in population is uncovered single-handedly by the rookie detective who conveniently happens to be the son of a very influential ex-basketball-player and hence to meet all the characters involved in the plot. This is pleasant but somewhat thin with a limited number of players considering the issues at stake and a rather artificial ending.

Look here for a more profound review by Cory Doctorow.

a pile of new books

Posted in Books, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by xi'an

IMG_2663I took the opportunity of my weekend trip to Gainesville to order a pile of books on amazon, thanks to my amazon associate account (and hence thanks to all Og’s readers doubling as amazon customers!). The picture above is missing two  Rivers of London volumes by Ben Aaraonovitch that I already read and left at the office. And reviewed in incoming posts. Among those,

(Obviously, all “locals” sharing my taste in books are welcome to borrow those in a very near future!)

redshirts

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , on September 28, 2014 by xi'an

“For the first nine years of its existence, aside from being appointed the flagship, there was nothing particularly special about it, from a statistical point of view.”

A book I grabbed at the last minute in a bookstore, downtown Birmingham. Maybe I should have waited this extra minute… Or picked the other Scalzi’s on the shelf, Lock In that just came out! (I already ordered that one for my incomiing lecture in Gainesville. Along with the not final volume of Patrick Rothfuss’ masterpiece, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, which will just be out by then! It is only a side story within the same universe, as pointed out by Dan…)

“What you’re trying to do is impose causality on random events, just like everyone else here has been doing.”

What amazes most me is that Scalzi’s redshirts got the 2013 Hugo Award. I mean, The Hugo Award?! While I definitely liked the Old Man Wars saga, this novel is more like a light writing experiment and a byproduct of writing a TV series. Enjoyable at a higher conceptual level, but not as a story. Although this is somewhat of a spoiler (!), the title refers to the characters wearing red shirts in Star Trek, who have a statistically significant tendency to die on the next mission. [Not that I knew this when I bought the book! Maybe it would have warned me against the book.] And redshirts is about those characters reflecting about how unlikely their fate is (or rather the fate of the characters before them) and rebelling against the series writer. Ensues games with the paradoxes of space travel and doubles. Then games within games. The book is well-written and, once again, enjoyable at some level, with alternative writing styles used in different parts (or coda) of the novel. It still remains a purely intellectual perspective, with no psychological involvement towards those characters. I just cannot relate to the story. Maybe because of the pastiche aspect or of the mostly comic turn. redshirts certainly feels very different from those Philip K. Dick stories (e.g., Ubik) where virtual realities abounded without a definitive conclusion on which was which.