the Little Red Reviewer

The Engineer Reconditioned by Neal Asher

published 2006 (or maybe 2008?)

where I got it: purchased used

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I’ve not read a ton by Neal Asher, but everything I’ve read I’ve enjoyed.   Asher enjoys having a go at religion, writing incomprehensible aliens who see humans as delicious snacks,  AIs who are smart enough to lie to their human wards, a biological explanations for immortality, over the top biological adaptations, and a galaxy with ancient alien technology and ruins.  That’s like, all my favorite scifi things!  If you’re interested in hard scifi, space opera, large scale universes, really alien aliens,  I highly recommend Neal Asher.

 

I didn’t realize The Engineer Reconditioned was a short story collection until I started reading it. The collection includes ten or so stories of various lengths from Asher’s interconnected Polity plot lines. If you’ve never read any Asher,  this is a great place to start, because whatever stories you liked the best there are a bunch of novels where those characters and situations will show up.  The collection includes stories of Jain tech, gross-out biological action on planet Spatterjay, stories of the mysterious Owner, and a few stories that are just fun romps through alien environs and dumb humans who may make tasty snacks.  Click here for a timeline and how all the Polity books work together.

 

The first and longest story, “The Engineer”, is what I came here for, and I wasn’t surprised that this ended up being my favorite story in the collection.  Two scientists, Chapra and Abaron, are aboard an exploration vessel and they come across an egg floating in space. Abaron teases Chapra about her obsession with old movies, especially a certain movie starring face huggers and chest bursting scenes.  They bring the egg inside the ship to investigate, and see if they can wake up the comatose creature inside.  Herein lies some excellent hard scifi – how to determine the creature’s natural habitat? What if air that humans can breathe poisons the creature? How to determine what to feed it? How to communicate with it?   The creature wakes up, and Abaron and Chapra are able to give it an environment in which it can survive, and food that it can metabolize. Living mostly under water, the creature starts building things and communicates its needs to the scientists by leaving different items on the pier.  After a while the scientists realize their AI has insulated them from the outside world as a protective measure. “The Engineer” was a fantastic story with great pacing, smart dialog, and some truly excellent science. Not to mention a few laugh out loud Alien jokes!

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City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

 

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All artwork (other than the book’s cover art) in this post is by the very talented Chanh Quach. You can view the rest of her Divine Cities character portraits here.

 

This is the third book in a trilogy, and I’m a little jealous of people who will read City of Miracles as their first Divine Cities book.  How different would City of Stairs be if you already knew Sigrud’s secrets, if you already had Vinya’s backstory?  I imagine those early conversations would read much differently and have layers of subtext.

 

Picking up twenty years after the events in City of Stairs,  City of Miracles feels slower, more introspective, and less subtle than the previous installments in the trilogy.   The pace and quietness reflects Sigrud’s personality – he’s not slow by any means, but he’s self contained, doesn’t waste words, and comes to things on his own terms.  Still wanted by the government for his actions after his daughter’s death, he’s been living in hiding under an assumed name. At his age, he should be slowing down, but to Sigrud one day is timelessly much like the next – he patiently waits for Ashara Komayd to contact him, he keeps to himself, and if anyone suspects his identity, he disappears.  In the first two Divine Cities books, Sigrud stole every scene he was in, so it is nice to have an entire novel where he is the star of the show.

artwork by Chanh Quach

As with other Robert Jackson Bennett books, the world building in City of Miracles is fantastic. Gorgeously rendered city scapes,  barren hinterlands, everything in between, and more importantly everything has a history. When you close your eyes, you see it, you are there, you can hear the breeze through the trees, you can find someone nearby who can tell the story of those ruins.  In the twenty years since we first met Shara and Sigrud, the world has changed. A young industrial revolution, of sorts – more automobiles, a sky gondola contraption that goes over the mountains instead of through them, more telephones, etc.   As the younger generation is excited about these new technological developments, the older generation is still getting used to a changing world.

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The three volumes of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy are strewn about my house, like a path of breadcrumbs. Annihilation, the shortest of the three, sits on the coffee table in the living room, positioned in such a way that if you sit on the smushy sofa, you can easily pick it up. There is a still a ring on the coffee table where my coffee mug sat this morning, dark liquid cooling as I slowly read the last few pages of the book. Everyone talks about the tower, the crawler, the border, the colonization. I do too, as those are the physical stars of the book, the things everyone talks about, the things you can point a finger at and be relatively sure that you experienced them in a similar fashion as others. For me, the star of this show is the Biologist. How her relationship with society is the same as her relationship with her tide pools and environs – to observe but not to interfere. That she doesn’t really care what other people do. She is aggressively self sufficient. That she and her husband loved each other, but that their struggles to understand each and meet each other half way was damaging to their relationship. His extrovertedness versus her introverted self sufficiency. Through the lens of his gregariousness, he saw her as walled off and uninterested in sharing her inner self. His experience in Area X allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of her, and she of him. I like that she found something that she was looking for. And maybe her husband did too. The entire story is tense but comforting at the same time. It’s like a giant tide pool or terrarium, where every rock you turn over shows you more you don’t know, which is why you came to explore in the first place. To realize how much you don’t know.

Authority sits on the kitchen table, where I was reading it over coffee this morning. I’ve read this novel before, and I’m only a few pages into it now. What a different feel from Annihilation! The first novel is soft moss, swaying ferns, chirping birds, clouds that come and go in the breeze. Like the biologist, I wonder why everyone is so afraid of what happens in Annihilation. Authority, on the other hand, feels all sharp angles, florescent lights, clicky shoes clattering on metal staircases, knowing everyone is biting their nails. There is plenty of the unknown here too, but no quiet contemplation, no comfort. The tenseness feels like staring at a phone, willing it to ring, but not wanting it to ring. Authority feels like Finch, like you are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. From what I recall from my first read, Ghost Bird makes an appearance. Maybe her calmness will comfort me, maybe not.

Acceptance sits on the other end of the kitchen table, opened, but unread. What a terrible fan I am, that I have not yet read Acceptance! I think it because I am not ready, mentally, for this story to end. I do not want Area X to cease being. I want to continue to pick up rocks, turn over starfish, find new tadpoles and thistles. I want there to always be things I don’t know. The idea that every question answered means I have ten more questions is comforting to me, not annoying or frustrating.

It sure is nice to have all three books here, that I can just binge read them right through. The weather is perfect for reading outside.

We opened that bottle of champagne last week. After an anxiety filled three months of unemployment, I am scheduled to start a new full time job next week. It’s been eight years since I had a traditional office job, it’ll be nice to have an office gig again. I’m even looking forward to dealing with rush hour traffic.

It’s time to read Acceptance.  Let’s see where the breadcrumb path leads.

 

Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker

published in 2007

where I got it: purchased used

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I’ve been trying (and not always succeeding) to read Kage Baker’s Company books in the order of publication.   Which meant next up was Gods and Pawns, which was  published in 2007.   The series starts with In The Garden of Iden, a novel that completely broke my heart into a billion little pieces. Then came Sky Coyote, in which I fell a little bit in love with Joseph even though he is a complete asshole. Or at least, I thought he was an asshole until I met Porfirio, now that guy is a piece of work.  The Company books get darker and darker the further you read in the series, and yet Baker’s writing style is full of humor and wit, so you’re laughing at the same time.  With all the research that went into these novels and short stories much of her work reads a little bit like Tim Powers, that of course these crazy things didn’t happen . . . but no one can prove that they didn’t….

 

Gods and Pawns is a collection of short stories that take place in the Company world. Similar to her collection In The Company of Thieves, these mostly light-hearted short stories are excellent entry points into Baker’s Company world.

 

What is The Company? In the future, time travel is discovered. However, you can only travel backwards in time, and recorded history can not be changed. The owner(?) of The Company sends operatives back in time, where they take in orphaned children and turn the children into immortal cyborgs who are now employees of The Company.  For the cyborgs, it’s a post-scarcity life – they never need to worry about money, or a job, or a roof over their heads. The job security is great because they are immortal. But what are they working towards? What is the point of finding and then hiding all the valuable paintings and manuscripts and gems in the world for some future you may never see? Is this a good gig? Is it slavery?  What’s the retirement policy like?

 

I have condensed and vastly oversimplified Baker’s amazingly complex world. If you enjoy long running space opera series with fantastic writing, time paraxodes (paradoxii?) horrible secrets, lots of dark humor, all written by an author who is a genius at playing the long game, this is a great series for you.  If you’re not sure if that is something you’d like, the short stories are a great place to start.  For more information, and possibly epic spoilers, checkout the Company reread that Stefan Raets did at Tor.com last year.

 

While I was disappointed that Mendoza doesn’t star in a larger portion of the stories in Gods and Pawns, I was happy to see my favorite side character, Lewis, get the spotlight.

 

Surprising nobody, my favorite short story in Gods and Pawns is the Lewis/Mendoza story, “To The Land Beyond the Sunset”, in which our two immortal operatives act as mortal guests of a family of supposed gods.  Mendoza is excited about the rare plants she finds on their property, and Lewis is trying to figure out how exactly these people are related to each other, and why they seem so ignorant. There’s also the whisperings in the walls of a secret family member who keeps getting moved around the villa so the “visiting mortals” can’t see him. There’s the expected humor in this story, Mendoza and Lewis are immortal, and do have what could be construed as godly power. And this lonesome family appears to be underfed, ill-informed, living in a ramshackle villa, and not godly at all.  Everyone is playing a role, it seems.  Mendoza’s first discovery makes me hope these people die a horrible death for what they are doing. The next discovery makes me feel so terribly sorry for them.

I always imagine Lewis looking like Cyril from Archer.

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Fellow bloggers and book reviewers, have you ever said to yourself

“uggh, I have no idea how to review this book!”

or

“I need to review this book, but I have zero motivation to get started on writing the review!”

To those of you who are book lovers but haven’t taken the plunge into blogging or semi-serious reviewing, have you ever wondered what the secret is to writing a review, and writing them consistently?

One simple trick is the answer to all of the above.

You ready for it?

I can only give you this answer if you promise to do the following:

let me know if you’ve ever done something similar and if it has worked for you

if this has worked for you, makes sure all your friends know about this one weird trick so it can help them too.

Because from time to time, we’ve all struggled with writing reviews.

 

Are you ready?

 

are you sure you’re ready?

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You’ve all read Robert Sawyer (right?).  The WWW series, the Hominids series, Flashforward,  Mindscan, Frameshift,  about a 20 other novels, and his newest novel is Quantum Night.

Sawyer won his first Prix Aurora award in 1991 and has been going strong ever since.  His books are accessible and easy on the eyes. He writes the kind of near future scifi thrillers that are perfect for your friends who don’t want something too weird.

Head over the Apex Magazine website to read my interview with Robert Sawyer, where we mostly talk about Quantum Night, but also talk about getting characters (and readers!) excited about science,  what baseball has to do with writing hard science fiction, what BattleStar Galactica has to do with psychology, and the reason why your surgeon might have pretty crappy bedside manner.

I am very proud of this interview. Mr. Sawyer and I spoke on the phone for about 40 minutes, and then I muppetflailed around the house for about a week. I took time out from the muppetflailing to transcribe the interview. If you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it, please leave a comment over at the Apex site, so they know you enjoyed it too.

 

Also? If you like Jeff Vandermeer, you should read “How Lovely Is The Silence of Growing Things”, also in this issue of Apex.

Turbulence by Samit Basu

published in 2012

where I got it: acquired a used copy

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I describe myself as someone who doesn’t like Superhero stories, and then I read one and have a blast.  I think what I don’t like is the majority of american style Marvel/DC Superhero movies, which is an entirely different blog post, and also an entirely different thing from superhero novels and short stories.

 

Back in 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing Samit Basu for SFSignal, and his books have been in the back of my mind ever since.

 

People in India are waking up with superpowers. It seems that everyone on a particular London-Delhi flight ended up with the special powers of their dreams.  One person could fly, another became an amazing inventor, another was able to control the weather, another could create multiple copies of themself, etc.  A lot of the “look what I can do!”  is ripped directly from American style comics, and there’s actually a lot of purposeful joking about superhero names, X-men style powers, and fourth wall poking.  Not only is Turbulence a hella fun story, it’s also a love letter to superhero stories.  I really can’t say enough good things about this novel. It’s fun, funny, kept my attention, and thanks to Basu’s writing style I was instantly and continuously invested in the characters.

 

The first “superhero” we really get to know is Uzma.  She’s  moved from London to Mumbai to become a Bollywood actress.  Beautiful and graceful, everyone likes Uzma, and she was my favorite character.  Overstaying her welcome with her cousin, Uzma answers an ad to rent a room in a big old house, only to learn that everyone who lives there is weird or crazy. The owner of the house, Aman, has figured out that something strange happened on that flight, and he tells Uzma he contacted her because she is powered, and he wants the powered people to stick together which is why when he finds powered people he lets them stay in this huge house for free. What he doesn’t tell her is that people who were on that flight are being systematically kidnapped or murdered, and he hopes by staying together they can protect themselves.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.