14 February 2017

Culture vs Polity

The Hydrogen Sonata | Iain M Banks
Brass Man | Neal Asher
Hilldiggers | Neal Asher

Culture vs Polity
It's kind of unfair to compare the Culture and the Polity, but perhaps it's also inevitable. In both, humans live in high-tech worlds, all over the galaxy, and AIs run the place, benignly, wisely, and almost omnipotently. So this review will read a bit like Alien vs Predator. (In more ways than one: fans of Alien movies didn't like AvP, fans of the Predator movies didn't like AvP, so I can assure you that both the Culture novels and the Polity novels are a sight better than this CvP review).

I've loved Iain M Banks' Culture since I first read Player of Games many decades ago. Since then, I've read most of the Culture books (there are still a couple more I haven't read, what a treat). My favourites in the Culture are Inversions, Against a Dark Background and the utterly awesome Matter.

A few years ago, I discovered Neal Asher's Polity, too, having read Gridlinked. Then a hiatus, after which I read The Technician. And then a really long gap before I devoured, one after the other, Brass Man (Ian Cormac is back! Yay!) and Hilldiggers (without Cormac or the Dragon).

First, The Hydrogen Sonata. In typical Banks style, we get to meet a protagonist, Vyr Cossont, who does truly weird things for definitely alien reasons (getting an extra pair of arms to play a hideously discordant and complex instrument created for a piece of music that is "definitively" reviewed as a "peerless challenge", but as a piece of music, "without merit"). She is part of a civilisation that is planning to Sublime (into matterless life in the great informational beyond), in less than a month. However, political and military shenanigans occur early in the book, and the whole process of Sublimation may or may not be derailed. Should it be derailed or not is a question that a motley group of ship AIs from the Culture grapple with.

So we have ship avatars, British humour, chases, a confused attack arbite (robot?) who sees the world as a cool simulation, the bewildered Cossont, an old human, people who are partying like crazy (Banks writes a great crazy party) and people willing to kill thousands to hide the guilty secret.

It's a great story, zipping along. But not as good as the other books I mentioned above. One of the lesser Banks' books. Which is still head and shoulders above most sci fi books. Of course, but naturally, it makes you think. And it makes you look up words like kakistocrat.

Brass Man brings back the broken golem, Mr Crane, last seen being vanquished by two Golems and its mind (in its crystal) being smashed to bits, after laying a path of blood and gore at the behest of that evil and obsessed terrorist Arian Pelter.

Except that Skellor, the even more evil human who used the scarily super high-tech alien Jain technology to try and take over Masada from both the Dragon and the Polity, is not, after all, dead. And he resurrects Mr Crane. Skellor is like a supervillain with almost no chinks in his capability. Even Jerusalem, a Polity AI as powerful as the super-potent Earth Central, is terrified of Jain tech. Mr Crane is as broken as ever. Both are going to Dragon (one of the four spheres, hiding undamaged on Cull, a world of pre-Polity humans) for more power, more evil, more mwahahaha. And against them we have Ian Cormac, a couple of golems, and a few humans who are now developing incurable cancers from the Jain tech, plus a ship AI called Jack Ketch. And a pre-Polity just-at-rifles-level human on a sandhog who is a Rondure Knight out to slay a dragon. All would be fine except for some traitors in the woodpile. The good guys have to really struggle, and frankly I wondered how they were going to win at all, even partially, till almost the last chapter.

Hilldigger is without Cormac, but has an Old Captain aka immortal from the planet Spatterjoy instead. He's the Polity envoy-cum-assessor to two colonised planets of pre-Polity humans who've been having a running space war for several centuries. One planet, the hotter one in the system, is home to the high-temperature-adapted Sudorians, who find 55C chilly, and bear an ancient grudge against the Brumallians, who live on the slower and cooler planet and have organic tech to save themselves from a chlorinated atmosphere. The war is won by the Sudorians, when they capture an alien/artifact called the Worm, imprison it, learn about U-space and other such. Immediately after this, the Polity comes offering tech and miracles, if only the Sudorians (and maybe the vanquished Brumallians, later) join up. Except that Fleet doesn't want peace. And four genius quad orphans are manipulating their way up into Sudorian society for reasons they themselves don't know. Our Envoy needs to ensure peace while being under constant attack from factions and also from a Spatterjoy pair of viruses fighting it out in his body, all while his invincible helping drone is half-destroyed.

Swashbuckling, breathless, wonderful space opera of the best quality. Inventive, full of tech and creatures from the highest and maddest level of creativity.

Except that asteroids are not so close that they keep banging into each other every few hours. I bet even Saturn's rings don't have that kind of hectic clashing of rocks, and they are a sight denser. Neal Asher, major fail, that.

And somehow, I always think of the vegetarian, non-violent and gentle Jains I know when I see the word Jain, and the cognitive dissonance is fierce.

Overall, I find Polity books more fun, perhaps because they are more human-centric while the Culture books are more AI-centric, though Matter will always be in my top 10 list. Culture books may be more authentic in their treatment of inscrutable AIs and regarding a post-scarcity future, but Polity books’ people are just more accessible and relatable.

13 February 2017

Feminist romance

Finding Gaia | Kimberly Chapman

When Kimberly Chapman first mentioned her book Finding Gaia on Google+ as a romance, sci fi, fantasy, paranormal, I just nodded and moved on. However, when she mentioned it was feminist romance, I stopped and wondered how that would differ from the standard romance novel (which I don’t normally read).

So finally, having cunningly waited till there was a sale of books, I went out Finding Gaia.

And yes, there is a difference between the standard ‘romance’ novel and a feminist one, and I can understand more clearly why the standard romance novel is so very unappealing to anyone who believes that humans are humans first, and not men or women first and last, and hardly humane in the ways ‘standard’ romance novels treat the characters.

A book like this makes it even clearer that the drama and twists in a romance should not come about by jealousy and misunderstandings, that hate does not beget love, that contempt and ruthlessness and the use of force have no place in a real romance. Yes, this book is a romance first, but it’s also sci-fi, it’s also fantasy, it has paranormal stuff in it, it has humour, it has relatable characters, it has terrific writing, pace, suspense, villains and heroes, even superheroes and superbly horrible villains (these occur later in the book than the merely horrible villains in the early chapters).

Sure, run off immediately and leave this review and go buy your copy and ignore me. See if I care.

What happens in it? There is Jason Truitt, who is really old (centuries), and who is looking for someone like him (centuries old) and thinks he is again hot on the trail of the elusive Gaia. He is rich (compound interest over centuries, duh, what else would you expect? No? Well, okay, he’s a successful businessman). He has proteges (kind of heartbreaking to see your young friends age past you, grow old and die, so it must take real strength of heart to continue having proteges) who are Trish the peppy, enthusiastic, witty and impatient one, and Don the nerdy scientist who is barely aware of the world (except when wife Trish pulls him willy-nilly into the real world) but superb at his nerdy work. They are all on the track of a woman Jason code-names Gaia, whom he last saw centuries ago, and whose trail keeps going cold.

Why does her trail keep going cold? Is she evil or is evil done to her? What effect does the evil she encounters have on her? Can we get to like her? Will she be Jason’s friend or foe? Bwahahaha. In case you were expecting spoilers from me, I won’t give you any. Yes, they find Gaia. She can make things grow, besides being immortal. Does or does Jason not have a superpower of his own? Shrug from me.

Here’s a small sample, which to my mind, encapsulates the difference between a feminist/sensible romance and a bodice-ripper (said with true loathing). It’s also a sample of the humour you get all the time from Trish (my favourite character in the book):
“Where are you going?” Trish shouted, running after him and pointing east. “She’s out there!”
He paused, his foot on the first step. “If she comes back, we’ll work it out calmly and slowly and properly.”
“And if she doesn’t?”
“Then I’m the one who is unworthy and don’t deserve a second chance.”
“Oh that’s profoundly stupid,” Trish spat.
“I’m not going to make it worse by chasing her down and saying the wrong thing.”
“How about chasing her down and kissing her? Leave words out of it!”
Jason turned and snapped back, “Yes, hunting her like an animal and assaulting her would be bloody brilliant.”
Trish shook her head incredulously. “You know, I love you so much that sometimes I really hate your guts.”
“Fine,” he grumbled and then ran up the stairs two at a time.
Trish shouted after him, “Yeah, fine! Go off and sulk then! That’ll really help!” Just before he slammed his bedroom door shut, he heard her mutter, “Moron.”
Yep, this book gets five stars, and I’m waiting for the sequel (it’s been written but not yet out).

03 February 2017

Time travel for a better world

Fractured Horizons | T.E. Mark

I first came across T.E. Mark’s writing on his blog (temarkauthor.wordpress.com) where he writes these cheerful suggestions for SF writers struggling with sounding sufficiently high-tech. He not only brings the real science to you in an easily digestible format, but then proceeds to take off on the wildest trips through space and time and the multiverse, peppering the reader with crazy tech and plausible technology terms, until you finish the piece either with a big grin on your face or laughing helplessly.
A time travel book for young adults

So I was more than delighted when he kindly agreed to give me a copy of Fractured Horizons for review. And I was certainly not let down in the least.

Fractured Horizons is a light read for young adults. The nearest book I can think of which is similar in theme is possibly Johnny and the Bomb by Terry Pratchett. As an older adult, I could wish FH was as long as JATB but TE Mark packs in quite a punch in a much shorter book.

Robert Davie, a teen in England, meets a new girl in school on page one. She’s mysterious, and knows more about him than he thinks possible, and leaves with a cryptic suggestion that he not freak out too much at the evening coming up; he’s not crazy. Robert, a studious type not given to thinking of himself as that attractive to girls, goes home. You know what they say about home? It’s where the wifi connects automatically. Robert finds out that the wifi not only doesn’t connect automatically, it doesn’t seem to be there. His mom is not his mom. The kitchen is not the kitchen. The world is not in 2016. He remembers Helena’s warning, and hangs onto sanity.

The next day is worse. He’s now in Alexandria, studying with Euclid, and he has a different name (and understands a different language)! Fortunately, Helena is around to explain/befuddle him more.

Robert finds he’s in ‘training’, but for what? He goes from past to future and back, depending on ‘what he learns’ during the day. Helena accompanies him throughout, nudging him towards understanding, managing the transitions and exchanging witty dialogue. The speed of the story and the light touch with the banter between the two made me spend the whole time reading FH with a smile on my face, sometimes expanding to a grin. The smile remained after the last scene flashed on the page and the final ellipsis came up.

The story is ostensibly about the adventures of Robert, but is actually more subtle. You end up wondering about which technological advances the present state of society can withstand, and which would likely overwhelm our coping power. Would you change it if you had the power? The book looks at nuclear power. A thoughtful teen would also go beyond and start wondering about climate change, about the Internet, and other technology impacts we take as ‘given’.

Do I recommend it? Well, if you want to smile your way through a neat story that allows you to think (or not, as you please), go right ahead and pick it up.