Review: The Speed of Dark

The Speed of DarkThe Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems like I mention empathy in every review I write. All writing is an act of empathy, but some shifts of circumstance and perspective are greater than others. In Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark we are in the near future where our understanding of genetic disorders has generally eliminated disease. The story is told from the point of view of Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged man with autistic spectrum disorder. He was born at a time when some treatment was available but a cure still eluded science for several more years. He has high social functioning, lives independently, has a complete work and personal life – but he is also aware that he is different. Some of his differences make him exceptionally talented, but his inherent difficulty with social cues and language isolates him and restricts his ambitions. When a promising treatment for adult autistic spectrum disorder makes headlines, he and the others within this last generation with autism are faced with difficult choices.

I have no idea what it would be like to be autistic and if this portrayal is accurate. It is noted that Lou has undergone some treatment in his childhood which would not be available with current science, which might afford some leniency from readers with a closer relationship to the condition. Even if it is not a realistic depiction of autism it is a fascinating mental framework to experience a story through. I listened to the audiobook version which is a little uneven across the various voices with some sounding a bit cartoon-y, however Jay Snyder’s rendering of Lou Arrendale throughout the very dynamic character arc was superb and subtle. The variations in the meter of Lou’s speech patterns are clear enough in the text, but the performance amplifies the changes by almost downplaying them. I know I am being a bit cagey but I would prefer to let the author reveal plot at her own pace. I have to give additional credit to Elizabeth Moon for not taking the easy path in telling this story. After building such a wonderful character as Lou she rightly lets his personality guide the resolution. There are difficult choices with real consequences and each choice feels right for the character even if it runs counter to convention.

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Review: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leviathan Wakes is a great introduction to a sci-fi series. It has great characters – smart, complex and a perfect small group dynamic. Holden’s moral compass guides this team and it doesn’t feel like a cliche. That is part of what separates this from Firefly which would be a close comparison. Holden is not a rogue, or at least not aimin’ to misbehave – he is a rogue by being honorable, even somewhat righteous, in an environment where self-preservation is expected.

Set mostly on small ships in the hard vacuum of space James S.A. Corey’s story get another thing right – physics. You are always aware of the relative acceleration of each scene and its effect on the characters and their decision making. This isn’t Star Trek where character casually stand and chat while they jump into “warp” speed. Here the ships have mass and inertia, and people are fragile who must orient themselves to their changing forces. Also, space is huge* and traveling between Saturn and the asteroid belt takes time and involves risk. Acknowledging that changes who your characters are, understanding gravity changes what they look like, understanding the scarcity of resources changes how they act.

The plot involves mystery, daring, and politics, and maintains a quick pace. In a series opener you always run the risk of getting a lot of worldbuilding and little resolution, but Corey manages to make a satisfying conclusion, tying up all of the major plot threads. You could definitely stop after this book and feel that you had a complete experience, but leaves fertile ground for future stories. I absolutely recommend Leviathan Wakes to sci-fi fans, and I will definitely be adding the next book in the Expanse series to my “to read” list.

*Space is really huge. If you have not seen Josh Worth’s If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel website, then you should definitely check it out. Just for fun, when you get to the Sun click on the “C” in the lower right corner to scroll at the speed of light… you will find it tedious and end up manually scrolling, which if that does not tell you how big the solar system is I don’t know what will.

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Review: Rust, Volume 1

Rust Vol. 1: Visitor in the FieldRust Vol. 1: Visitor in the Field by Royden Lepp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rust is a dieselpunk graphic novel which is a little bit Iron Man and a bit Astro Boy. During The Great War allied forces created mechanical soldiers and aerialists with rocket packs. They won the war and a generation later the machines are slaves used for farming and industrial tasks. In the first volume of Rust we are introduced to Roman Taylor, a wheat farmer struggling to provide for his family. He is repairing an old mechanical soldier to help around the farm when a boy with a rock pack, Jet Jones, crashes through his barn. Jet is vary helpful around the farm, but also quite mysterious.

The Goodreads synopsis describes Rust as a “high-octane adventure”, but despite the clever pun alluding to the dieselpunk theme, the story is really more contemplative. Simultaneously telling the story of the war and the struggles on the farm most panels are devoid of dialogue and action. I do think the characters are likable with some depth worth exploring. The mystery aspect has some promise, while the immediate storyline with Jet seems pretty straight forward, the overall history of the war and man’s relationship with the mechanical men is intriguing.

The character art is somewhat inconsistent, but has some very strong panels. The mechanical drawing is excellent. Each of the mechanical men are beautiful and menacing and the motorcycles, tractors, and trees are artfully rendered. The coloration is sepia-tone with very nice smoke, clouds and motion blurs which adds great depth and energy to the story. The volume I have is hard-bound with a cloth-wrapped, embossed cover with foil and printed inlays. The paper and print quality are both excellent. Archaia has published a high quality product for a promising story.

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Review: Frankenstein

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Frankenstein
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frankenstein is a classic novel, that could have been immeasurably improved by being a classic short story. There are aspects I have problems with. Victor Frankenstein is impossibly brilliant, but a painfully forgetful and self-deluded man. I cannot help but wonder where the story could have gone if he had remained engaged in the implications of his creation.

The creature himself is astoundingly well-spoken and far more astute than the tremulant Frankenstein. With his inexhaustible capacity for self-awareness and self-improvement I would hope that he would sequester himself in some Swiss cabin and become a philosopher or poet rather than a murderous wretch. I also cannot think of a more distanced POV than having a meaningless frame story (in the form of a letter to an unseen character) where the actual narrative is told as a dictation, which includes a…

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Review: Acrobatic Duality

Acrobatic DualityAcrobatic Duality by Tamara Vardomskaya

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We are one, and we are not one.

Science fiction goes through phases and eras which generally mirror our scientific advancements. From the 1950s through 70s it was space, in the 1980s and 90s it was computers. We are in the golden age of science fiction of the mind. Old Man’s War, Lock In, Altered Carbon, Legion and Dollhouse (among many others) have explored questions of self and identity. Amongst a sea of great thinkers and writers of speculative fiction Tamara Vardomskaya finds an unique voice and perspective.

We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time.

A talented but unremarkable gymnast awakens to find that her consciousness is shared between two talented acrobatic gymnasts; a discipline which requires the coordinated routines of balance and aerial maneuvers in pairs. With their shared proprioception they are unbeatable, soaring to the world championships and heavily favored to win. Vardomskaya does an admirable job translating the essence of the movements, but the senses and limitations of this unique identity is where Acrobatic Duality really shines. The struggle between the distinct bodies and shared mind is thoughtfully explored with beauty, tenderness and honesty.

…blue eyes against dark-brown, searching for what should look right, for when we were I.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: Damage

DamageDamage by David Levine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fell from the warmth and light of the hangar into the black silent chill of space, plummeting toward the teeming, rotating stars.

This is the short story of JB6847½ (a.k.a. “Scraps”) the single-seat space fighter cobbled from the remnants of two destroyed spaceframes and their artificial intelligences. Scraps remembers what it was to be each of her component ships, their missions, their beloved pilots, and her two previous deaths. She carries this with her, along with her new pilot, into desperate battles at the end of a losing campaign.

Tensors and coordinates and arcs of potential traced bright lines across my mind—predictions of our path and our enemies’, a complex dance of physics, engineering, and psychology. I shared a portion of those predictions with my pilot on his cockpit display. He nudged my yoke and our course shifted.

Her own greater senses and perspective keep them safe, while her pilot provides the bravado. Within this short story we get a love story as asymmetrical as most, she is unfailingly devoted to him, programmed to be so; and he cannot see beyond himself.

My pilot’s biologicals, I saw immediately, were well into the red, trembling with anxiety and anger. “We are secure at target coordinates, sir,” I reassured him. “No sign of pursuit.”

“Took you long enough,” he spat. “Where the hell are we?”

The mechanic who created her, Specialist Toman, repairs her and is only person within whom she confides. Toman offers warmth and respect towards Scraps and is alternately her mother and her friend. The science nerd in me was disappointed in a strategy employed at the end of the piece. I don’t want to delve toward spoilers, but it would seem an available tactic (which would have been much more potent) was missed. Fans of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress or the Cretaceous period would likely have thought similarly to me. The outcome could have been the same while considerably raising the stakes. Ultimately it is a story of conscience versus duty and provides a different perspective of the casualties and calculations of war.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: Trees, Volume 1

Trees, Vol. 1 (Trees #1- #8)Trees, Vol. 1 by Warren Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of confidence in anything by Warren Ellis. He has proven to be a keen observer of society and can create worlds and characters although warped and twisted to reflect ourselves like a funhouse mirror. He has opened up dark places within his characters and revealed a sympathetic link to a little bit of darkness we recognize. Trees, Volume 1 introduces a world, much like our own, only the question of the existence of intelligent life in the universe has been answered, at least for humanity. Immense alien bio-mechanical structures have landed on Earth. The distribution seems arbitrary situated in Manhattan, Mogadishu, Rio de Janeiro, near Shu in China and Svalbard. For ten years they seemingly do not move, do not communicate, do not acknowledge us at all. They stand motionless as trees.

What does change is us. Many flee the shadow of these colossi, others are drawn towards them. They are studied by scientists, philosophers, politicians and artists. The rest of the world carefully tries to ignore the behemoths; to pretend they do not exist – or have always existed. The trees seemingly exert influence over those in proximity simply by their presence. Warren Ellis sets up this tension; a tension which has existed in this world for ten years, but plants the seeds for eminent communication between our species in future volumes.

While Warren Ellis is working as subtly as I have ever seen him, Jason Howard is bold and impressive. His illustration excels in all aspects. Through his scratching short strokes he conveys huge landscapes, expressive characters, organic and technical detail, and kinetic action sequences with equal confidence. He expertly reveals the “trees” from distant shadows and incomplete forms to eventually describing texture and patiently waiting to unveil the view of them in their entirety. He has the unenviable task of working in huge shifts in scale, but through color and composition he translates the action with clarity and emotion. It is truly stunning work.

I received access to a digital copy of Trees, Volume 1 from NetGalley. The collected trade paperback will be released by Image Comics on Wednesday, February 11th, 2015.

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Review: Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Altered Carbon is a mash-up of most of my favorite genres: sci-fi, anti-hero, ronin, hard-boiled detective and thriller rolled into one, so this should have been a home run. Instead it just landed a bit funny and took me a long time to sort out my feelings and expectations and get around to reviewing this book. A few of the things I didn’t love about this book (misogyny and uneven pacing) are certainly the fault of the author, but mostly it didn’t meet my expectations and the high bar set by others.

Prior to reading this book I had already read John Scalzi‘s
Old Man’s War (2005), The Ghost Brigades (2006) and Lock In (2014). With Altered Carbon releasing in 2006 it was generally contemporary with the first two, and well before the last, but I cannot help but compare the science fiction framework employed in each of these works. Scalzi approached his science fiction with a more curious mind; teased out more scenarios, ramifications and opportunities. You could tell that he labored on the scientific framework and wove the story to incorporate the most intriguing aspects. While Richard K. Morgan’s world building is deep and engaging the science fiction felt cursory and surface level; a cool overlay to a detective story. This feels like the second book in the series, like all the background, explanation and experimentation of the science fiction was lost in another volume and now we are just playing in the sand box.

The greatest disconnect for me was the concept of “real death” and its circumstances. We are informed in this story that each person has a biological computer the size of cigarette butt buried at the base of their skull which carries all of their thoughts, memories, personality and knowledge. If a person is killed then their “cortical stack” is removed and inserted into another body (“sleeve”) and they carry on. Seemingly everyone has at least enough insurance to get a new body and transfer, but although this is a digital process apparently only wealthy have digital copies on file somewhere, and the very wealthiest have regular backups. This makes no sense to me. Pure digital storage is the cheapest part of computing, and if a functional copy with all the bio-computing interface fits in a cigarette butt then I cannot fathom how most people seem not to have off-site storage. Isn’t that the number one rule of data management? Worst case scenario (apart from the religious group’s self imposed mortality) is that “real death” would be a reset to someone’s consciousness from months or years back. In fact I would guess most muscle-for-hire, prostitutes, and everyone else who seems to populate this book would work on a “burner” copy of their consciousness as a manner of contract so not to betray any illegal deeds and maintain deniability. This fundamental(albeit super nerdy) logical problem stole all the stakes out of the game for me.

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Review: Golden Son

Golden Son
Golden Son by Pierce Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This story is relentless. There never is a moment to catch your breath, enjoy a victory or make a sound plan. Darrow is a force – breaking chains, enemies and friends in his wake. Golden Son starts exactly where Red Rising left off. I had impossible expectations after Pierce Brown’s thunderous debut. Most second novels stumble to regain the energy and momentum of their first, but this book soars. The Goodreads blurb directly references some famous and familiar series, and if you enjoy the machinations of A Song of Ice and Fire, the cunning of Ender’s Game, the defiance of The Hunger Games, then you already know you should be reading this series. To me it stands above those others. Maybe it is because I am fresh from its pages, but it is more earnest, more human and more grown up than those others respectively.

The title references the Gold’s obsession with lineage and succession. All the sons stolen and sacrificed to power and honor, the sons adopted either legally or emotionally, the sons overlooked and dismissed. The golden son of a red mother. In Red Rising we saw the cruelty the Golds levee on the lower colors, in this book we see the cruelty they bring on themselves. The blood debts and oaths that come with obsession with power. You can see that it is broken on all levels, that corruption and mistrust erodes the Golds. Darrow and the elusive Aries sow discord throughout society. The conflict in Darrow between his mission and the people who have sworn allegiance to him weighs on him, humanizes him. You see that he wants to fight for his comrades even as he pulls their world down around them. Like many second acts this is a darker turn and our hero’s challenges look even more daunting, but his strength is more defined. We have seen the kernel of his rebellion take tentative roots and there is hope, if not for him, for his cause. I anxiously await the final book, Morning Star, but I no longer worry about Brown’s ability to recapture the magic of Red Rising. I worry for Darrow and the others in his small band of revolutionaries. I hope they are loyal; I hope they are alive.

You can also read my equally enthusiastic review of Red Rising which I included on my Best of Science Fiction 2014 list.

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