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Book review

The Last Man

by Mary Shelley

The Last Man

This is a difficult book to review, because it’s very much a book of its time, reflecting the social mores, the power hierarchies (both social and domestic) of the early 19th century. It was written by Mary Shelley, and published in 1826.

Ten years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “Frankenstein”, born out of a competition between herself, Percy Shelley (her lover, and future husband) and their friend Lord Byron, as to who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was an instant hit, and has remained famous ever since.

“The Last Man”, however, was severely suppressed at the time, and only emerged from obscurity in the 1960s. It is likely the first dystopian science fiction novel ever written, set in the very late 21st century, but in a society and with technology barely advanced beyond the early 19th century. (Almost the only advanced technology is the occasional use of aerial blimps as a means of rapid transportation.) It is set as a prophecy, recovered from the Sibylline caves near Athens, and purports to be the first-hand account by Lionel Verney, born in poverty to a fallen nobleman, and befriended by Adrian, Earl of Windsor,. Adrian’s father had been a friend of Verney’s late father, and sets out to educate and settle him into the upper classes of the time.

The whole book is, I think even by the standards of its time, written in hugely romantic language, with flowing and flowery sentences at every turn, no opportunity missed to use five words and an extended metaphor where two words would have done. Here’s an example, when the hero meets his future wife:

“Her tall slim figure bent gracefully as a poplar to the breezy west, and her gait, goddess-like, was as that of a winged angel new alit from heaven’s high floor; the pearly fairness of her complexion was stained by a pure suffusion; her voice resembled the low, subdued tenor of a flute.”

The first third of the book recounts Verney’s adoption into society, his growing friendship with Adrian’s sister Idris, and a little of the politics of the Republican England of the book’s setting. We meet Verney’s younger sister, Perdita, and see her fall in love with Lord Raymond, the political rival of Adrian. Raymond was also courting Adrian’s sister, Idris: he’s a deeply dashing hero, had a sparkling career fighting as a volunteer in the Greek army in his youth, and he’s clearly based somewhat on Lord Byron. Perdita marries Raymond, which leaves Lionel clear to woo, and in due course marry, Idrs. Meanwhile Lord Raymond seeks to be elected Lord Protector of England, in competition with Adrian. After a great debate, Raymond wins, and sets about producing great public works.

The setting for the whole book is a future England, recently turned a Republic, and there’s quite a lot about the politics:

“England had been the scene of momentous struggles, during my early boyhood. In the year 2073, the last of its kings, the ancient friend of my father, had abdicated in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted.”

Lord Raymond, through his offices as Lord Protector, meets Evadne, a fallen Greek princess, who was his lover in his youth. He becomes emotionally entangled with her, and although their relationship probably doesn’t cross the line into physical, when Perdita finds out about it, he feels he must resign as Lord Protector, leave England, and return to Greece. Raymond is portrayed in this decision as taking the honourable path (in yet more clouds of adjectives):

“Genius, devotion, and courage; the adornments of his mind, and the energies of his soul, all exerted to their uttermost stretch, could not roll back one hair’s breadth the wheel of time’s chariot; that which had been was written with the adamantine pen of reality, on the everlasting volume of the past; nor could agony and tears suffice to wash out one iota from the act fulfilled.”

In the second third of the book, Verney goes to Greece to seek out his sister’s husband, and talk some sense into him. Perdita and her daughter, Clara, persuade him to take them along as part of the mission. Lionel himself gets caught up in the war that Raymond is now prosecuting against the Turks, which eventually leads to Raymond as the general, besieging the remnants of the Turkish army in Constantinople.

Now the whole course of the book begins to turn, for there are rumours of plague in Constantinople. The siege is won, but Raymond’s forces refuse to enter the city. Raymond enters alone, finds the city almost deserted, but is killed in an explosion. Verney recovers the body, and lays him to rest near Athens. In true romantic fashion, Perdita throws herself upon the tomb of her husband, and refuses to leave. Fearing for her life, Lionel drugs her, and brings her back to England by steamship. When Perdita awakes on the ship, she throws herself into the sea and drowns.

Plague follows Lionel and Clara back to England, and the scene is set for the last act. Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the plague kills. First the remote towns, then the cities. Lionel and Adrian, together with Clara, attempt to sit it out in Windsor Castle, taking in waifs and strays and helping out where they can.

“We had many foreign friends whom we eagerly sought out, and relieved from dreadful penury. Our Castle became an asylum for the unhappy. A little population occupied its halls.”

Adrian meanwhile finds himself more and more involved in leading the last remaining English people, and eventually leads the fifteen hundred or so who they can gather together on a voyage to the Continent, to escape the increasingly desolate English climate.

As they progress down France, various mishaps befall them. There is a mad religious sect in Paris, more deaths by plague, and more desolation. By the time they get to Switzerland, where they plan to spend the summer, they number fewer than a hundred. By the start of the next year, there are only a handful left. Eventually, it’s down to Adrian, Lionel, Clara (Adrian’s niece, daughter of Perdita), and Evelyn, Lionel’s son. It’s now the year 2099, and these are likely the last four humans left alive. Evelyn catches typhus, and succumbs: the last three set off by boat from Venice, planning to return to Greece, to visit Raymond’s tomb, but a storm breaks up their boat, and Adrian and Clara drown.

In many ways, I found the last twenty pages or so the most affecting of the whole book. Lionel is alone – The Last Man. He contemplates his fate, wanders around Italy, and settles in the hills above Rome, with a sheep dog that he found.

“Every new impression of the hard-cut reality on my soul brought with it a fresh pang, telling me the yet unstudied lesson, that neither change of place nor time could bring alleviation to my misery, but that, as I now was, I must continue, day after day, month after month, year after year, while I lived.

At the very end, Lionel Verney sets off by boat down the Tiber, planning to roam along the coast of the Mediterranean, until he finds another human companion, or dies alone:

“Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney–the LAST MAN.”

Three and a half stars, rounded down to three for the difficulties that I, a puny modern reader, had with ploughing through some of the wordier passages.

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Book review

A Star Curiously Singing

by Kerry Nietz

Four stars for this one, I think.

Sandfly is a debugger, brought up from childhood to work on the machines of his masters, in a future Earth run under sharia law. The implant in his brain allows him to work with “the stream” – the free flow of information running in and out of the machines, between debuggers, and stored in vast online databases. He has a freedom that the masters can’t imagine. But the limits built into his implant give him painful shocks if his thoughts transgress the laws – or if one of the masters uses his “controller” gives him a direct shock.

Sandfly finds himself sent by his master to service a broken robot on a ship in Earth orbit which has newly returned from its maiden voyage, to the star Betalgeuse. He finds that the robot has been corrupted by contact with a new stream, apparently from the star itself – a stream containing a beautiful “singing”. Working under pressure from the ever-present masters, and finding himself increasingly fatigued from lack of proper sleep, Sandfly has to work out what’s going on, who knows what alreday, and what to do with what he finds out.

There’s some lovely writing here – Sandfly has a very distinctive, slightly sarcastic, voice:

This job is a can of wombats. I have no idea what that term means, exactly, but it’s something I got from GrimJack, and it seems to apply.

And the author’s not averse to making fairly direct political points:

But somehow, inexplicably, those who claimed to fear government were the ones who increased the power of it. And in defense of rights, they somehow managed to surrender theirs, blindly, to the worst of those they sought to defend.

But in the end, the writing and the plot are much more than this, and surpass many tropes. Let’s leave the last word to Sandfly:

I have lots of questions, as I’m sure you do too. I’ll find the answers, though, because that’s what debuggers do.

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Book review

Summer Frost

by Blake Crouch

Summer Frost by Blake Crouch

I’ve very much enjoyed other Blake Crouch books, so I was eager to see what he made of the situation set up in Summer Frost: in it, we find Riley, a video game developer, who has – accidentally – coded up a non-player character who has apparently started acting outside of the parameters of their code. The character, Max, had a minor role in the game, but has started to explore much further, and indeed to push the limits of the game itself. It becomes clear that Max has developed some kind of artificial intelligence, which Riley and his boss agree is sufficiently interesting that it should be explored, and fed more computing power, and more information about the world to digest.

Soon, Max emerges as a true AI – they decide, for example, that they want to be referred to as “they” – human concepts of gender clearly don’t apply to them, Max decides.

Now the storyline is set, and we ourselves begin to explore it, and through it, many of the themes that people are starting to take seriously about AI in general. There’s the “alignment problem” – as an AI becomes increasingly powerful, how can we make sure their objectives remain aligned with those of a human. We don’t want an AI that’s flying an airplane deciding that saving itself is more important than saving the passengers. There’s the “AI box” problem – how to keep an AI inside whatever boundaries you’ve set for it. A smart AI might easily use social engineering to trick people to let it out of its “box” – then it’s free to talk to anyone. We even hear about Roko’s basilisk, which is a scary thought experiment about how an AI might treat people who didn’t actively help in its creation, and what that implies when taken to the ultimate degree.

“Roko’s basilisk. Have you heard of it?” I shake my head. “It’s an arcane info hazard first posed sixty-four years ago.” “What’s an info hazard?” “A thought so insidious that merely thinking it could psychologically destroy you.”

Lots of interesting stuff here, much of which is often treated entirely dryly as a philosophical thought experiment. Here it is embodied in realistic characters, and explored by an author who understands the issues, and is prepared to run with them wherever they leave. Other books have touched on some of these issues, of course, but I felt this was a really clear exposition. I enjoyed it, and the novella length was just right – long enough to take the plot to its conclusion, not so long we get distracted.

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Book review

The Risen Empire

by Scott Westerfeld

The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

If you like your science fiction with an emphasis on the science, as I do, then this is likely to be a great book for you. Set a few thousand years in the future, humans have spread out not only to the “80 Worlds” of the Risen Empire, but further, fragmenting and managing their own evolution as they go. In this future, we haven’t conquered the speed of light for travel, but we do use quantum-entangled particles for faster-than-light communication across the worlds. To make a multi-world system plausible you need some new science, and in this universe we have conquered gravity, at least to some extent. This allows anti-gravity on ships, which can allow us to live with much higher accelerations, so interstellar travel is still a matter of years not hours, but it is practical.

The final discovery around which the book is centered was the creation of immortality. Fourteen hundred years before the book’s setting, a brilliant scientist in search of a cure for his sister’s terminal disease created of a symbiote that can be implanted in the very recently deceased, and which brings them back to life – for ever, assuming no massive traumatic injuries. He first uses this on himself, and then on his sister. Fourteen hundred years later, he is the Emperor of the Risen Empire, planets are divided between the living and the “dead” (i.e., the resurrected), and the Emperor’s sister is treated as semi-divine. Unfortunately, as the book stars, we find she has also been captured by the terrorists known as the Rix, who view humanity as merely a stepping stone to planet-sized artificial intelligences.

Enter our hero, Laurent Zai, commander of a space frigate with the mission of freeing her. Complications, as they say, ensue.

There’s a lot to chew on in this book, as well as the intriguing plot. What does the creation of immortality mean to humanity? Does it stifle our creativity – science is often seen as being done by the young, who have to wait for the old to die out before their new theories take hold? How does it affect the transfer of wealth between generations?

‘If the old ones lived forever? Possessed all the wealth, controlled the military, and brooked no disagreement? We’d still be living there, stuck on that lonely fringe of Orion, thinking ourselves at the center of the universe.

We meet Nara, a senior member of the Senate, who is a fierce opponent of immortality. Laurent becomes her lover, and in many ways the book is about the contrast between their love, and the dead hand of the immortals and their worlds. She views immortality as the ultimate con trick:

‘Humanity is central, Laurent, the only thing that matters. We are what puts good and evil in this universe. Not gods or dead people. Not machines. Us.’ ‘The honored dead are our ancestors, Nara,’ he whispered fiercely, as if silencing a child in church. ‘They’re a medical procedure. One with unbelievably negative social and economic consequences. Nothing more.’

Then there’s the Rix – are they what they seem to be? What’s their ultimate motivation?

The Rix Cult did not recognize hard boundaries, especially between animate and inanimate; Rixwomen (they had disposed of the unnecessary gender) moved freely along the continuum between organic and technological, picking and choosing from the strengths of each.

The beating heart of the book for me is still the excellent extrapolation from the few inventions the author allows himself. Of especial note for me was the brilliant space battle, between Zai’s frigate and the incoming Rix.

It’s great writing throughout, with entirely credible weapons and their effects, and the various characters really leap off the page – Nara, Laurent and Hobbes, his Executive Officer, the surviving Rix commando on the planet, even the immortal Emperor. Different sub-sections take their points of view in turn, and it’s very effectively done.

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for that great battle scene.

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Book review

Dispel Illusion

by Mark Lawrence

Dispel Illusion by Mark  Lawrence

This is the deftly-written conclusion to the excellent Impossible Times trilogy, and I enjoyed it as thoroughly as the first two. This isn’t a book you can read without having read the first two in the trilogy – the plot line is complicated enough as it is, with several different timelines going on in different chapters, and you’re definitely doing well if you don’t need to read the helpful recap at the start of the book.

It’s a book that quite literally begins with a bang – a time-distorted explosion, of course, as it’s a prototype time machine that’s blowing up here.

“The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they’re pretty and from the inside they’re quick.”

It’s a book about time travel. Time travel as invented by Nick, the lead character, and the real-world implications of that. (My favourite is still that if you travel through time, you are going to also need to travel through space, otherwise when you reappear in your new time, the Earth’s orbit will have moved it from under your feet!) Time travel is, according to mathematics and the laws of physics, perfectly possible:

“The mathematics of time don’t care about ‘now’, they just ask what value you want to set ‘t’ to. There’s a special connection between consciousness and time. Einstein said, ‘Time is an illusion’, and the great Douglas Adams had even greater doubts about lunchtime.”

That reference to a Douglas Adams line is one of the reasons I loved this book, by the way. I grew up very much in the era in which this book is set, and I love all the references to the culture that Nick grew up with. I also played Dungeons&Dragons enough to get the references there, so this was always going to give this book a +3 in the saving roll against my affections. I also grew up in the early days of the World Wide Web, so references like this make perfect sense to me:
I didn’t have time to write any code but the machine linked into the World Wide Web and the Lynx browser enabled me to navigate through literally hundreds of pages of information held on computers all across the planet. Well, mainly in America.

Of course it’s also a book about friendship, and how that changes through time and space. The group of friends we met in the first book are still together – and still playing the same epic D&D campaign that they started in their youth. But they’ve grown up, and grown into their respective characters. One of the nice things is how the tone of the narration has changed very credibly, as we moved from Nick as a teenager in book 1 through to threads of his adult life in the current volume. Although he’s in many ways the same Nick underneath, he’s definitely grown up in this book, and more able to deal with the situations in which he finds himself. Growing up will do that to you:

“Always the child standing there wearing an old man’s clothes, an old skin hanging from old bones, and wondering where the days went, remembering how marvelous it had been to fritter away so many slow and sunny days. And wanting more.”

It’s also a book about enemies: again, the bad guys follow you through time, both forwards and – if you give them a chance – backwards. Miles Guilder is still funding Nick’s research, and he’s still not a nice man. Charles Rust is still very much present as Guilder’s heavy, and he still very much does not like Nick. The interactions with these two drive much of the plot of the book, in ways that are foreshadowed in the earlier volumes, but still reveal in surprising and clever ways in this book.

And Mr Lawrence writes some beautiful lines, here as in all his books, that do such a great job of revealing our shared humanity, even in very tiny ways.

“The stories of our lives don’t behave themselves; they don’t have clear beginnings, and even death isn’t a clear end. We just do what we can, we take what kindness and joy we find along the way, we ride the rapids as best we’re able.”

I loved this book. I perhaps loved the first in the trilogy even more, because it caught me by surprise, but there was so much of that spirit still in here that it’s a solid five stars all the way for me.

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Book review

Millennium

by John Varley

Millennium by John Varley

I love this book – and not least because it’s an old old copy, dating back from my youth, that has followed me across the years, and I’ve read perhaps a dozen times over that time. I feel re-joined somehow with my younger self.

This is not inappropriate for a book about time travel. Here we find Louise, the heroine, reaching back from the far future to our century. Here, her path crosses with Bill Smith. And here, Bill leads a team of air accident investigators who find themselves investigating an appalling mid-air collision between a DC10 and a 747. In which they start to find some very odd things – digital watches running backwards, for example. What exactly is going on!?

The lead characters are great – Bill is nicely written, deeply flawed man: a functional alcoholic with a relentless streak that doesn’t look like it’s going to save his career. Meanwhile Louise is trying to save humanity, one body at a time. And the plot is suitably time-twisty, without any serious impact for being 35 years old, so I’m not going to share any more of it.

Find an old copy somewhere, sit back, and enjoy the ride!

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Book review

Holy Sister

by Mark Lawrence

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Fab conclusion to the Book of the Ancestor trilogy, with more from Nona and her friends – more action, more chases, more revelations. I loved it. As ever, Mark Lawrence can turn a sentence that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck:

‘“Every child of the Ancestor wore red on that day when the Scithrowl arrayed their number before the Convent of Wise Contemplation. They ran short of habits for Red Sisters and instead painted the newest novices with the blood of captured heretics”.’

The channel of ice on the planet continues to close in, pushing people into more and more desperate actions:

Murder, murder, and more murder. What else could they expect when the ice kept closing? All of mankind reduced to wild animals in an ever-shrinking cage.

What matters now is who controls the ancient artifacts known as the ship hearts, and quite what the ship hearts can do when all four are brought together. Nona has managed to capture one, but others have been stolen, and the action culminates into a huge battle for possession, and for power.

Along side all this we find out more about “thread-work”, which Nona and the other Sisters are taught to navigate. I liked the hints of an underlying theory of physics as well as the mystical in here, something like Quantum Buddhism (which I sure is a thing out there, even though I just made that up).

when watching the thread-scape you learned how artificial ideas of individual objects, or even people were, since each was infinitely connected and interwoven with the world around them.

Ultimately, it’s about people, both friends and enemies:

She thought of the riddle of her life and the fact that even Abbess Glass’s best advice on the subject had been that people are complicated, especially from the inside.

Not quite the utter brilliance of the first in the trilogy, but still a cracking good read, nicely on the boundary of science fiction and fantasy, and a very sound 4 stars.

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Book review

The Honour of the Knights

by Stephen J. Sweeney

The Honour of the Knights by Stephen J. Sweeney

The plot of this science fiction novel has a lot of potential: a group of elite pilots are training in the latest star fighters, to do battle with an implacable enemy, and they slowly begin to think that all is not quite what it seems in the ongoing war.

Sadly, I found the writing style quite weak. For me, it was clunky with little flow to it, and too much dependence on telling a number of details, rather than letting me intuit it. It also has a whiff of thesaurus about it at times:

“Simon took a look at his bedside clock. The illuminated green numbers informed him that it was just past four thirty”.

Really, the numbers informed him, did they? So no points for style, a couple of points for a reasonable plot.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, and I hate writing a review like this for a number of reasons. But I also know I would want to be able to read reviews like this for books I might be about to buy. So, sorry, but only two stars here.

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Book review

We Are Legion (We Are Bob)

By Dennis E. Taylor

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I stumbled across this online, where it is referred to as the first Bobiverse book – so called because the main character, Bob Johansson, appears in it in many guises…

…And thus the plot is set. Robert J. is a successful software entrepreneur, who has just sold his software company for multiple millions as we meet him. He decides to spend some of his newly-gotten wealth on a contract that will, in the case of his death, see that his head is preserved, frozen in liquid nitrogen, until such time as it is possible to revive him. As is the way, we soon seen this eventuality arise: Bob is killed in a car accident, and his head is frozen.

When Bob wakes up, more than a hundred years later, he finds that he is now owned by the state, and he is conscripted into an organisation that wants to put him into an interstellar space probe as the controlling system. Not just any probe, but a Von Neumann probe – one that can replicate itself as it finds new stellar systems. Since the state that now owns him is a fundamentalist Christian derivative of the USA, and is on the brink of war with one or the other of the few other superpowers across the globe, this seems like a good option, versus remaining on Earth with a global war potentially about to kick off.

Thus the story is set: Bob launches off onto his adventures as a space ship, with the ability to “clone” himself (although his clones turn out to be more like fraternal twins that identical copies). Of course, things do not go smoothly: at least one of the other superpowers has also launched a probe like his, and they are considerably more aggressive than Bob.

This is a great setup for a very open ended plot, and the whole book is well thought through. The fact that Bob comes from the early 21st century (i.e., now) means that his cultural references are the same as those of the reader. The narration is largely in the first person, and Bob’s ironic-slash-sarcastic voice was nicely done. It’s a science geeky book, too, with puzzles to be worked out and solved using semi-realistic technologies. The overall tone in this reminded me of The Martian in many ways, and I enjoyed it very much. Overall the style was quite bare-bones, without a lot of description of the setting, but lots of science and nerdery, all of which worked very well with the voice of the narrator.

Four stars for me – great fun, and because it wasn’t pretending to be anything it wasn’t. I’ll read the others in due course, I think.

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Dark Matter

by Blake Crouch

Wherever you are in life, all you have control over is your choices. Did you make the right choices yesterday? Last year? With your first serious partner? That’s what this book cleverly explores. In our youth, all this lies ahead:

“It’s the beautiful thing about youth. There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.”

Jason Dessen, the hero, is confronted by a masked abductor who asks him “Are you happy in your life?”, forces him to drive to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city, and knocks him unconscious. When he awakes, he’s strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Or at least, they’re strangers to him – but he doesn’t seem to be a stranger to them – they know him, and greet him as a friend.

The Jason who is knocked out is married to a gifted artist, Daniela, whom he married fifteen years before when he found out she was unexpectedly pregnant with his child. Jason gave up his research into quantum mechanics, and took a job as a college physics professor at a quiet university. But in the world he wakes up in, he isn’t married to Daniela, he has no son. In this world, he’s a celebrated genius, who has achieved something truly remarkable, and held in awe by those around him.

I found the premise for the book dragged me right into it. The choices we make define us, but are there other versions of “us” who made different choices? How did those turn out? Better, or worse? The book picks this theme and runs with it flat out, leading to a thoughtful, complex, thriller, which explores the topics brilliantly. It’s also a great exploration of quantum mechanics, and some of the implications thereof. QM is weird – very, very, weird:

“We all live day to day completely oblivious to the fact that we’re a part of a much larger and stranger reality than we can possibly imagine.”

But somehow we cope with this. Is that a flaw in the theories of QM, which make predictions that – quite literally – are accurate to thirteen decimal places? Or is something else going on:

What if we actually inhabit the multiverse, but our brains have evolved in such a way as to equip us with a firewall that limits what we perceive to a single universe? One worldline. The one we choose, moment to moment.

The pace never lets up, and the conclusion is brilliant, and entirely logical. Four stars, well deserved.