Archive for science fiction

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!

Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2019 by xi'an

Just found out that the writer Gene Wolfe, author of the unique New Sun series (and many other masterpieces) had passed away two weeks ago. (The Guardian has a detailed obituary covering his life and oeuvres. Where I learned that he developed the Pringle’s machine for Procter and Gamble, something he can be pardoned for his other achievements!) The style of the New Sun series is indeed unique, complex, carefully designed, crafted in a very refined and beautiful language (missing the translation of the more appropriate langue), and requires commitment from the reader as the story never completely unfolds and sets all details straight, with characters rarely if ever to be taken at face value, making me feel the urge to re-read the book once I was finishing its last page. Which I never did, actually, and should consider, indeed!

provenance [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on October 6, 2018 by xi'an

While looking for a book to read in a café of Courtenay, B.C., I came upon a nice bookstore called Laughing Oyster (!) and among other findings, Provenance, a novel taking place in the same universe as the Ancillary Justice trilogy of Ann Leckie that I appreciated very much (along with the voters of the three major science-fiction prizes!). I read Provenance in a single afternoon, as the book is not particularly long, especially when considering it uses rather large fonts! Given the depth and complexity of the said universe, the current book is captivating enough for a warm summer afternoon read, but not at the same level as the original trilogy, as it feels too homely, i.e. based on a tiny set of people that are or get interconnected and manage to save the confederation of worlds from a major crisis. Which is alas a common occurrence in science fiction (and fantasy) novels, but remains annoying! And the characters are less complex and more predictable than in Ancillary… The book is thus capitalising upon the earlier series, but nonetheless enjoyable on… a warm summer afternoon!

A Closed and Common Orbit

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2018 by xi'an

This book by Becky Chambers comes as a sequel of sorts to her first [science-fiction] book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Book that I liked a lot for its construction of relationships between the highly different team members of a spaceship. In this new book, the author pursues a similar elaboration of unlikely friendships between human and alien species, and AIs. If the first book felt homey, this one is even more so, with essentially two principal characters followed alternatively throughout the book, until the stories predictably cross. It is fairly well-written, with again a beautiful cover, but I cannot say it is as magisterial as the first book. The book-long considerations on the nature of AI and of cloned humans are certainly interesting and deep enough, but the story tension ebbs at time, especially for the story in the past since we know from the beginning that the main character will reappear in the current time. Not reaching the superlatives of a Hugo or Clarke Award in my opinion (albeit nominated for these prizes). Still a most enjoyable read!

death of a giant [Ursula K Le Guin, 1929-2018]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , on January 27, 2018 by xi'an

Heard this early morning that Ursula Le Guin had died last evening. Sad to see this major writer departing for one of the magnificent universes she created, like Earthsea or Gethen… (Not a major science-fiction writer. Not a major fantasy writer. A major writer, full stop!) Much to my sorrow, I have not [yet] read the highly celebrated Left Hand of Darkness. With its original reflection on an a-sexual society, reproduced by later authors like Ann Lecke’s great Ancilary trilogy. But I enjoyed immensely the Earthsea cycle, which is made of beautiful and moving stories with central characters that are multiple and complex and imperfect. I also love the philosophy that runs behind these books, with a less conflictual approach to human interactions than in traditional fantasy. As indicated on her Wikipedia page, Ursula  Le Guin had a personal philosophy that was a mix of Taoism and anarchism (Proudhon’s anarchism), reflected in the stateless organisations of some of her fictional universes.

 “[anarchism] is a necessary ideal at the very least. It is an ideal without which we couldn’t go on. If you are asking me is anarchism at this point a practical movement, well, then you get in the question of where you try to do it and who’s living on your boundary?”

As a linguistic aside, I have always wondered about Le Guin name as it sounded quite Breton to me, but never checked before. This is in fact the name of her Breton husband, Charles Le Guin, a historian, whom she met on the Queen Mary bound to France, when they were both on Fulbright Fellowships, in 1953. (Sounds like so so far away, times when travelling to France was done by boat! I still have this wish or dream I could once board a freighter to cross the Atlantic…)

the shockwave rider [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2018 by xi'an

I ordered this book from John Brunner when I found this was the precursor to Neuromancer and the subsequent cyberpunk literature. And after reading it during the Xmas break I am surprised it is not more well-known. Indeed, the plot, the style, the dystopian society in The Shockwave Rider all are highly original, and more “intellectual” than successors like Neuromancer or Snow Crash. Reading this 1975 book forty years later also reveals its premonitory features, from inventing the concept of computer worm (along with a pretty accurate description), to forecasting (or being aware of plans for) cell-phones, the Net, the move to electric cars, and Wikipedia, with the consequence of being always visible for whoever controls the network. The characters are flawed in that they are too charicaturesque, but this is somewhat secondary since the main appeal of the book is to discuss the features of an all-connected world. And the way to recover power to the people against a government controlling the network and the associated data. The time being the 1970’s the resolution via a hippie commune in Northern California (like Eureka!) is a bit outdated and definitely “rosy”, and does not foresee the issue of “digital democracy” being threatened by a strong polarisation into estranged communities, but I still enjoyed the book tremendously. (As a bonus, I got the first edition of the book at a ridiculous price! With this somewhat outdated cover.)

Arcad’yaaawn… [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by xi'an

“How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale…” Robin’s Books

“Indeed, Arcadia seems to be aimed at the lucrative crossover point between the grownup and YA markets, even if it lacks the antic density of the Harry Potter series or the focused peril of The Hunger Games.” Steven Poole, The Guardian

The picture above is completely unrelated with the book if not the title. (And be at rest: I am not going to start an otter theme in the spirit of Andrew’s cats… Actually a cat plays a significant role in this book.) But Pears’ Arcadia is a fairly boring tale and an attempt at a rather dry play on the over-exploited theme of time-travel. Yaaawny, indeed!

I am fairly disappointed by this book, the more because Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost is a superb book, one of my favourites!, with a complexity of threads and levels, while maintaining a coherence of the plot that makes the final revelation a masterpiece. The Dream of Scipio also covers several historical periods of French Provence with a satisfactory plot and deep enough background (fed by a deep knowledge of the area and the eras…). The background, the broader perspective, the deep humanity of the characters, all these qualities of Pears’ books are lost in Arcadia, which sums up as an accumulation of clichés on dystopias, time-travel, and late 1950’s Oxford academics. [Warning, spoilers ahoy!] The parallel (and broadly medieval) universe to which the 20th century characters time-travel has some justifications for being a new type of Flatland: it is the creation of a single Oxonian academic, a mix of J.R. Tolkien and Eric Ambler. But these 20th century characters are equally charicaturesque. And so are the oppressors and the rebels in the distant future. (Set on the Isle of Mull, of all places!) And the mathematics of the time-travel apparatus are carefully kept hidden (with the vague psychomathematics there reminding me of the carefully constructed Asimov’s psychohistory.)

There is a point after which pastiches get stale and unattractive. And boring, so Yawn again. (That the book came to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award this year is a mystery.)