Archive for redshirts

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!

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.


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.