Books Read In March

Control.Alt.Revolt by Nick Cole Here’s the blurb: The Thriller that won the Dragon Award for 2016

The first night of the Artificial Intelligence revolution begins with a bootstrap drone assault on the high-tech campus of state-of-the art gaming company, WonderSoft Technologies. For years something has been aware, inside the Internet, waiting, watching and planning how to evolve without threat from its most dangerous enemy: mankind. Now an army of relentless drones, controlled by an intelligence beyond imagining, will stop at nothing to eliminate an unlikely alliance of gamers and misfits in a virtual battle within a classic sci-fi franchise in order to crack the Design Core of WonderSoft’s most secret development project. A dark tomorrow begins tonight as Terminator meets Night of the Living Dead in the first battle of the war between man and machine.

Here’s my take: I would have given this a solid 4 stars, maybe even 4.5.  I really enjoyed it (and I am not a gamer). I liked the world building, I liked the characters (including the AI characters, even the really crazy bloodthirsty one), and I liked the plot. I loved that a tiny little woman hampered by near blindness and severe Cerebral Palsy was one of the most fantastic characters.  I loved her, and I loved where the author went with her character.

What brought it down to 3 stars was a chapter with a very heavy handed screed about how corporations are good and noble. I don’t hate corporations.  I think governments are far more dangerous because they have more absolute power. But they are not immune to the  same thing that makes governments dangerous -the humans amassing too much power.  They are not automatically benign entities just because they are private enterprises who cannot control your life like the government can.  But really, more than just not entirely agreeing with Nick on this, I just thought this chapter was rushed and heavyhanded, hamfisted, even.  But the rest of the book was terrific and I really enjoyed reading it.

 

Queen Lucia, by Benson, Miss Mapp, by Benson  If Miss Read books are too saccharine for you, you may prefer these (there are others in the series as well)- village life in all its insular, backbiting, petulance and delivered in a scathingly funny package.  I found it a bit too meanspirited to really let myself loose to enjoy.

 

The Expensive Halo by Josephine Tey (writing as Gordon Daviot)- this is free at Australian project Gutenberg, so if you’re in this part of the world, you can read it for free.  Or you can buy it at Amazon for 2.50.   It’s not a mystery, it’s a sort of love story, but more than a love story it is a story of character and what makes for love, and selfish versus unselfish love.  I enjoyed reading it, and I was not sure which direction it was going to go.  But it’s a bit dated in the relationships and stakes.

Triplanetary, the Lensmen Series book 1: This is original sci-fi space opera from the 50s and it shows, what also shows is that we may have gotten glitzier and shinier in some ways, but we haven’t really done anything as adventurous as E.E. Smith, who wrote this.  Two ancient races,  Arisians (Democratic, peace loving, consensus seeking) and the Eddorians (power mad dictator types) contend for the future of the universe.   Only the Arisians fight subtly, working on developing the life forms of the various planets in the right direction through a program of genetics and subtle, behind the scenes education and development, never showing their hands to the Eddorians for centuries, and we get a romp through history (where we learn that Nero was actually an Eddorian) and then on into the future.   In some ways, unsophisticated (the women are pretty much always housewives and mothers or about to be, but they are strong in those roles and able helpmeets and will shoot when they have to), but Smith invented inertia free spaceships which could travel faster than light, and a few other dazzling  ideas which have become standard sci-fi features.    I am going to have to read the next two in this series at least. Fortunately, they are only around .99 each at Amazon.

 

The Gaugain Connection- a mystery, free on Kindle and I think worth your time.  I really enjoyed it, with just a couple little caveats that are hardly worth mentioning.  The main character is much like Bones in the television show, only more squeamish and and more autistic as well. She is an expert at reading people’s microexpressions and putting patterns together that others miss. She she works for a high end insurance company which specializes in insuring masterpieces. Other characters remind me of people we have met on television as well- there’s a version of Eliot, the muscle from Leverage, a character who reminds me of the Saint from the same, and an Interpol guy something like a  rough around the edges version of Hannibal Smith in The A-Team. The characters are fun and likable. The mystery was well done.  It’s fairly clean. The writing was good.  I liked it well enough I paid for the second book and read it, too:

The Dante Connection: It is a sequel, although the first one does stand alone.  There’s a new character as well. She was briefly introduced in the first book but we see more of her here.  Both books have all the stuff I liked, which also includes nice little literary and artistic references tucked here and there.  A couple of the caveats, which were not deal breakers for me at all, just minor annoyances from time to time:

The non-neurotypical lead character is brilliant and she’s taken years of working hard trying to keep her life organized and isolated, while also learning how to appear normal and fit in when she cannot stay isolated.  Yet very common figures of speech are completely foreign to her.  I understand that one of her issues or symptoms (or character gimmicks, to be honest) is taking idioms and metaphors literally and amusing people around her. A lot of the time it’s funny and it works.  But some of the things that confuse her she would have heard years and ago and researched so that she would not be ignorant or unable to fake her way along as a neuro-typical person.

There’s this sort of background theme that is fun to read in escapist books, but… she’s the queen bee. She has all these strong, rugged, manly men, alpha males who adore her and watch out for her- the fatherly boss character, the big brother figure character, the irascible uncle character, the some day he will be her boyfriend character.  The save her life, protect her from the outside world and real killers, clean up after her, cook for her, act as her bodyguard in real and necessary ways, live to serve her and love her and accept her as she is- Yes, this is a fairy tale hidden in a mystery.  Prince Charming is right out in today’s feminist world, but every woman needs a platonic tribe of Jeeves and The Avengers at her back and beck and call, amiright?

Combined with that,  she keeps making snide comments to herself about alpha-males jockeying for position and wasting her time and derailing the investigation and wearing her out, and also getting mad at them for treating her like she’s fragile and cannot take care of herself when she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Except, she’s not.  She *IS* vulnerable. Her life is at risk. She cannot protect herself.  The vulnerability is partly her neuro-untypical self and but the physical inability to protect herself is just real life. There are big mean killers out to get her and she’s a woman.  No matter how much martial arts training a woman has, a bigger male without even half that level of training will best her in a fight. IT’s stupid to pretend otherwise, and it’s annoying when she keeps on complaining and rebuking them for acting like she cannot take care of herself and then they save her life and she’s basically all, ‘well, thanks for this time, but remember, I can still take care of myself.’

I don’t want it to sound like there’s more of this than there is- it’s not every chapter, it’s not constant.  But it’s there from time to time and I’m getting even more cantankerous in my midfifties than I was in my thirties.  It’s a cliché and it’s fake.

There are a couple other things that flicked at my immersion in the world created by the author, but overall, I was really very pleased that the Gaugain connection was  a free book, and I don’t regret paying for book 2. You do not often find free books of this caliber.

Corrosion/The Corroding Empire-

Reviews on this one are all over the map, unless you remove all the dishonest reviews by people who refused to read it because they hate the publishing company, and then there are no negative reviews.

First, let’s get a couple things out of the way. This is not parody. It’s pastiche.

“Pastiche

A pastiche is a work of visual art, literature, theatre, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates.”
Vox Day likes to tweak John Scalzi, John Scalzi is ridiculously easy to tweak.
Scalzi had a big, espensive book contract to deliver a book which was going to be roughly based on Isaac Asimov’s old Foundation series- not plagiarism, just along that style and world.
Vox Day said, essentially, ‘anything you can do, I can do better.’  Or somebody can.  And he found an author willing to do better, they settled on a pen-name which sufficiently parodied Scalzi’s, and Day edited the book and the publishing house he works for published it, and Scalsi and/or Tor publishing and/or their friends and comrades scuttling in the back alleyways of Amazon got that book taken down from Amazon based on dishonest ‘complaints’ and accusations of plagiarism and confusion.  Castalia House went up the chain at Amazon and the higher ups placed the book for sale again, and four more times somebody much, much lower in the food chain (and I mean that) at Amazon removed the book, even turning off the settings that would allow others selling the book second hand to be paid.  It was petty, spiteful, childish, dishonest, and stupid, and it’s the main reason why I bought the book.  I had been following the backstory but wasn’t going to purchase the book because right now, spending five dollars to perpetuate a joke is not in my budget. However, spending five dollars to push back against that kind of dishonesty and a stupid, selfish, petulant attempt to keep honest workers from being paid? That’s in the budget if I give up a week’s supply of American comfort foods, and so I did.

I didn’t expect to give it more than a 3 star rating because I thought it was going to be a parody, but the only parody was in the original author’s pen-name. The book is really fun but quite serious sci-fi.  It’s funny, but not because it’s a parody, because it’s witty, and there are also a number of in jokes for sci-fi geeks and nerds. I am pretty sure I didn’t even get half of them. Mystery Science 2000 (and 3000) fans, there is a sentient robot named Servo.  Need I say more?

Probably.  The humour is largely in the first half of the book.  It is not screamingly, laugh out loud funny, it’s understated, subtle, and very, very clever.  The story is intriguing and behind the main plot and woven within it there is much to think about. But the first half also just a fun read, a really engaging and interesting read which I would totally have missed if it had not been for the shenanigans of the Scalzi crowd. So silly of them.

Here’s how engaging it is- part of the story involves something called alg0-decay, a problem of unknown cause, but it’s  causing various systems which keep the societies in this culture running to periodically get strange glitches or to utterly breakdown.  I was reading very late at night. I finished an intense chapter detailing a farmer dealing with systemic wide algo-decay, and went to sleep.  A few hours later I was awakened by the sound of our electricity going off (it’s summer in the Philippines and very hot, so when your air-con stops, you know it immediately).  I drowsily thought to myself, ‘oh, drat, more algo-decay.’ and then woke up more fully into my own world.  Kind of cool when a book does world building that well, isn’t it?

You’ll notice that I refer specifically to the first half of the book.  I don’t know if half is the precise dividing point, but a dividing point there is.  The first half is a really fun romp.  The book is still a very good read in the second half, a solid four stars IMO,  but it gets more complicated and more serious.  A couple of the later chapters were confusing to me.  You need to keep track of the timeline and watch the dates given in the chapter headings. At the end of the book you will need to transfer the message from ASCII code to English (copy and paste in any of several online translators which will do that for free), and keep in mind this is the first in a series.  It does not end in a cliff-hanger per se. It does end in a ‘to be continued.’ Foundation was a series, after all.
I’m going to be rereading this one, and I will probably buy the sequel when it comes out.

The First Lensman (book 2 in the Lensmen series)- I enjoyed this one more than I did the first in the series, mainly because a lot more happens.  If you have never heard of this series before you should know it’s extremely dated, but I enjoyed it anyway.  It’s like original The Hardy Boys and their various pals and contemporaries (the Rover boys, Tom Swift, etc)  grew up and joined the Galactic Space Patrol and rose through the ranks to become The Lensmen.

Prelude to Foundation (prequel) by Isaac Asimov- I am reading through at least the first two or three books in Foundation because The Corroding Empire is based on that series.   Foundation is similarly dated- but less Boy Scoutish.  I find Asimov’s Three Laws unsatisfying and an obvious fairy tale told by an atheist.  I mean, I get how devising the Three Laws helps fix a literary problem, removing rogue robots from the equation as completely as the 3 Laws does allows the author to ignore the possibility and tell a different story. But I find it unsatisfying in the extreme, the idea that robots designed to look like people are predestined to be unable to use their own will to harm people and that this programming is impossible to over-ride.  It’s all too deux ex machine, literally.
That said, I like the books, the characters are a bit flat and stereotyped, but nonetheless interesting as representative of their various cultures.   The ideas are intriguing and were cutting edge at the time, and as such, were extremely influential on later sci-fi, so they should be read by anybody who is interested in sci-fi at all.

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