Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Gibson is not what you would call a prolific writer. Every now and then something dribbles out. The works are generally short, although the ultradesigned packaging can fool you into thinking otherwise. I am a huge fan of Neuromancer and his other early works. Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrows Parties were all good, but it felt like he was just showing off and not really putting his heart into the thing. Pattern recognition is much much better.

The story starts in London where our heroine has to deal with the peculiar and uniquely retro British way of constructing household appliances and home furnishings in general. The novel is quite simply put one of the best I have ever read. The elegance of Gibson’s inventive and very modern prose takes us into a world of branding and a mysterious body of footage which has spawned it’s own subculture. The heroine, Cayce Pollard (in-joke for Gibson fans is the way her first name is pronounced “Case”) is very likeable in her imperfections and phobias. The descriptions are flawless as we follow the action exclusively from her point of view.

Her friends are the colorful protagonists of the world in which we ourselves live. A world of global powermongers seeking influence, but not by the unfashionable means of violence. These persons, in Gibson’s trademark way only glimpsed from somewhere further down the food chain, are postmodern creatures, influencing without revealing themselves. Cayce herself has friends in many places, and like many of us now living in ***cliché warning*** an increasingly global society, we communicate via email for close friends, as well as chatrooms and message boards where we can easily find likeminded people, people who share a common interest. Larry Niven talked about how, in a society with instantaneous, cheap transportation, social clubs became increasingly important when men and women needed to anchor their lives socially as geographical roots became blurred. In the same way, Gibson explores how, with internet technologies it is quite possible, indeed necessary, today to be far from friends, but still very close.

So, a “lifestyle” piece from Gibson which absolutely fascinated me and sucked me in like few other books have. Cyberpunk, having been invented by Gibson himself way back in 1984, is alive and well as the most cutting edge way to be a spectator to our own world.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Probably the funniest book I have ever read. An angel and a demon, specifically the angel who guarded the gates of Eden and the demon who gave the apple to Eve, are now in charge of Great Britain. Over the millennia, they have pretty much decided that their lives will be a whole lot simpler if they stop fighting and instead fudge their reports to their respective superiors while getting on with living the good life. This all works fine until the Antichrist is due to be born. In England.

So funny it made my stomach ache from the laughter. The subtle, understated little English gems of humor are carefully woven into an engaging, and ultimately absurd (and absurdly good and funny) story. Does for me what Pratchett cannot do alone, which is to say suck me in and make me want to read it to the end.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.

The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Arguably the best story about first contact ever written. A ship comes careening into a human system. The pilot is dead, and strange, and it has apparently traveled for years at sublight speeds to get there. Even more strange is the fact that the ship hardly seems enough to sustain it. Two ships are dispatched to a star system hidden inside a nebula to contact the aliens. The society of “Moties” they find is very strange, and very fascinating, almost as fascinating as the creatures themselves. What they fail to realize is that the truth behind Motie society is deeply disturbing and will be a danger to all humanity.

It has aged very slightly due to the its being written in the seventies, but this hardly detracts from the magnificence of this novel. Manages to capture the essence of encountering the truly alien, and how humans have a hard time not placing their own values and prejudices on that which they do not understand.

Nova – Samuel R. Delany

I first read this book years and years ago as a teenager. I can still remember staying awake half the night, then finishing it the next evening. It is a magnificent grail quest of sorts, complete with manic captain, a demonic enemy, big stakes, a rich and varied past for the characters, and a fabulous setting. The ease with which the prose flows, and the believable and interesting situations and interactions make this one of SciFi’s masterpieces.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Joss Whedon et. al.

I came very late to Buffy. I watched the original movie, and thought it was vaguely fun but brainless, so that put me off. I now know that Joss Whedon hated what they had done with his script. After many positive comments on io9.com, I thought I would give the series a shot.

On the face of it, Buffy is a pretty silly show. A high school girl has a destiny. She is the latest in a long line of “Vampire Slayers” who keep the world safe from evil. Vampires and demons are real. All the classic tropes like wooden stakes, drinking blood, burning up in sunlight, crosses are also real. Very silly. But delving a bit deeper, one notices that Buffy isn’t just a copy of countless late night TV horror movies. It is an unexpectedly intelligent show with strong themes such as love lost, death, the danger of absolute power, hate and fear but despite all that is not afraid at poking fun at itself or the characters.

Buffy’s greatness comes from several factors. First is the subersion of classic tropes. In the typical horror movie scenario, the dumb but pretty blond is being chased by vampires, or demons, or zombies. She shrieks and dies a horrible death. In Buffy, the blond is pretty but certainly not dumb (granted, not very academically minded either). She turns around and kills the vampire. The series is full of this reversal of the accepted order of things, often done in a humorous ways. It thrives on our knowledge of pop culture, offering up recognition moments without just copying old ideas.

Second, The Slayer (capital T, capital S) starts out is a high school girl with a head full of boys, make-up and clothes shopping. She is not an aloof superhero, but an approachable teenager saddled with way more responsibility than she could ever want. Buffy is an action hero, but not like a man at all. She isn’t a strong woman who acts like a man. She is strong but still feminine. She is also strong because she must; becoming a hero very much against her will. She realizes that she must save the world regardless of the personal price to herself, since no one else can or will.

Third, it is an ensemble show with strong characters. The “Scoobies”, as Buffy’s friends call themselves, are not just sidekicks. They drive the show as much as she does. Buffy is protagonist but not lone gunman. In fact, the Scoobies often have more interesting character development than Buffy does. The interaction between the characters and the wonderfully witty dialogue makes scenes spring to life in an uncanny way.

Fourth, it is easy to identify with the characters and really feel for them. Empathy for the characters unfortunately seems to be an underrated quality in television. I tried to watch the pilot of Lost but after an hour I really thought everyone did deserve to die in the crash. On the other hand, shows like Friends, Firefly (Whedon again), Farscape, Babylon 5, Warehouse 13 and The West Wing get to me. The creators make me care about what happens to these people, despite the shows sometimes being weak in other areas.

Fifth is character development. Identification with the characters is not enough. There must be a real sense of character development. After watching all seven season of Buffy, I went back to episode one just for fun. I was shocked to see how the characters seemed so young and naive, so different from what they would become. It was like imagining I was a teenager again and looking forward to who I am now. Just like real people, Buffy and the Scoobies had changed, and their environment had changed around them. I had been dragged along in this process, watching the kids grow up and the adults watching them, frequently in despair.

Sixth, the creators aren’t afraid to make awful things happen to the characters. The fact that they make us care for them makes it poignant, even heartbreaking at times. At the same time, the love between the main protagonists becomes all the more beautiful because of the adversity they must face.

Seventh are the all-important story arcs. Shows that press the reset button after each episode (e.g. The Mentalist) can be fine, but will never be great. The story arcs that flow through Buffy are nothing short of astounding, with foreshadowing of themes and events sometimes three of four seasons before they happen. Despite that, this isn’t a show that requires note-taking or obsessive attention. It does not make the mistake of being only about the arc, and most of the episodes are just fine as standalones.

The eighth and final element is the dialog. It is snappy, witty, intelligent, and frequently interspersed with unexpected and clever little jokes. There is rarely boring exposition. The words feel as if they mean something, and go deeper than just moving the scene along.

The first season has its fair share of corniness, but right from the start, the characters and their interactions feel “real”. The dialog is witty and incisive, very often crossing over into brilliant. Most importantly, I started caring for Buffy and her friends in the very first episode. The first season certainly has weaknesses, including a couple of pretty crappy episodes, but there is enough fun to keep things going, as well as a strong feeling that this is a diamond in the rough. By the middle of the second season the show has hit its stride, evolving from its initial “Monster of the Week” format towards ever greater awesomeness.

I recommend Buffy to anyone who loves television. Yes, the subject matter is silly, but this show is both fun and engaging. If you give Buffy a chance she will amaze you.

If you are really skeptical I recommend getting a taste with one of the best episodes of television of all time: Season 4 episode 10 – “Hush”. In this one, the town of Sunnydale (where Buffy is set) is invaded by strange evil men who take away everyone’s ability to speak. For about half the episode, there is no dialogue at all! Despite this, the acting is stellar and the story gripping. The fact that the characters cannot speak, but it is perfectly clear what they are trying to say. Most shows can’t accomplish such clarity even with dialogue.

Good-bye Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Spike, Faith, Anya, Angel, Joyce, Tara, Dawn, Riley, Kennedy, Andrew, Principal Wood and the rest. But not farewell. I’ll come back to visit soon.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

I had never read this classic for some odd reason. Card sets the boy Ender center stage from the very beginning. Most other characters are two dimensional parts of the surrounding for Ender to react to, with the exception of his siblings. The surroundings are equally vague, further enhancing the impression of Ender moving in a strange world. The novel focuses entirely on Ender’s personal development, and how the military is forced to mold him into a super soldier to end a mysterious alien threat. Society has become controlled and strict, with everything subjugated to the war effort, including trivial things like personal happiness.

Ender is a complex and deeply unhappy genius child. His plight is made all the more tragic by the fact that he is intensely aware of what is happening to him. He is becoming a great leader, but his empathy is suffering. He is being taught to manipulate others and mold them to his will, all the while realizing that he will be disliked, even hated, by those he controls. And what child doesn’t want to be liked rather than respected? for that matter, what adult?

The military establishment acts like those parents who want their child to “become something” without bothering to ask what the child wants. The excuse of the greater good of mankind could easily be substituted with “the good of the child”. Yet, while members of the military (appearing as voice-overs only) have doubts about what they are doing to Ender, the ends always overshadow the means.

In his introduction, Card mentions a letter from a guidance counselor who claimed that children simply don’t act or talk as the author describes them. But I agree with Card. Children can talk in an adult fashion, and their acts and motivations can be intensely Macchiavellian. However, they will censor themselves in front of adults, especially those who would frown upon their behavior. Children are seen in this novel as an underclass with no rights, which is used by society to further it’s means. Even though survival of the species is on the line, it still seems a very cruel thing to do. And this is an important theme in the novel. How far are we willing to go to ensure our survival? Is nothing sacred?

The central parts are somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the enjoyment. The pages just fly by and I was unable to put it down. The last part of the book takes an unexpected turn, but it is here that we discover Ender’s true purpose. Without giving anything away, I will say that it is not quite what you expect.

After finishing the novel, I just sat in awe for several minutes. The depth of understanding that Card has over human psychology on both the individual, group and mass levels is astounding. The way he weaves it into a story is spectacular and keeps the reader guessing, turning the pages to see what new surprises are in store. I cannot recommend this book enough. If you haven’t already, run out and buy it now!

Red Moon – David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton

The plot of this story is set in 2019, with humans back on the Moon looking for fusion power fuel, and also in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, at the height of the Moon race. As things fall apart during a Moon mission in 2019, a NASA scientist must travel to Moscow to find out about a mysterious spacecraft found on the Moon. He uncovers a deep conspiracy about the Cold War Soviet space program. Back then, unknown cosmonaut Grigor Belinsky is maneuvered into taking on an unthinkable mission.

I freely admit that I am a sucker for the subject matter. Secret Moon missions? Blending fact and fiction about the Moon Race? Oh my! I just had to read this book. It delivered beyond my wildest expectations. Unlike the deeply disappointing “Children of Apollo“, another independent publication in the genre, “Red Moon” is masterfully crafted. The plot is intelligent and elegant beyond words and moves powerfully towards a breathless climax. Not since early Clancy novels have I read something with this kind of page-turning power combined with depth.

And the characters! Belinsky feels so alive, so real. He is a classic tragic hero, his inevitable fate sealed by his deep drive and desire to do the right thing in an evil world. The whole way Russians are described is so spot on, showing their poetic and melancholy side, their deeply emotional selves, in a way that few Western thrillers manage. What a book! It satisfies on many levels, with the sprinkling of culturally rooted mysticism, the slice-of-life vignettes from the 60s and the believable, three-dimensional characters lifting what could have been just a competent thriller into the realm of the sublime.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

TheForeverWarThis is a classic written in 1975 and I finally got around to reading it. The novel is about William Mandella, a young man drafted into the military when the first interstellar war starts. He is part of the very first group of recruits. The training, under Vietnam War veterans, occurs on a fictional planet so far out from the Sun that the environment is at almost absolute zero. Almost half the recruits die in training. Following that, the men and women are sent towards a distant planet for their first encounter with the Taurans. The important point here, and that which gives the story its name and main plot device, is that since the troops travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, much more time passes for those they left behind than for them. They are in transit a few months while decades and more pass on Earth. This is a consequence of general relativity. When Joe returns home, his mother has aged decades. The Earth is dystopian and unrecognizable. Despite his distaste for things military, he dislikes the current Earth more and decides to re-up together with Marygay Potter, the girlfriend whom he met in the service. Next time he returns, wounded, from a mission, centuries have passed, and society has changed even more. Since there are still several years left on his enlistment, he is sent out again, heartbreakingly on a separate assignment from Marygay, both in space and now in time. On this mission, seven hundred years will pass back home.

Mr. Haldeman is himself a Vietnam War veteran, and it shows in the novel. The draftees are disaffected and do not have a personal stake in the war. In fact, they do not understand it. They are just victims. As Mandella’s rank increases with time, he makes good military decisions, but this is not out of some desire to be a hero, or even because he seems particularly interested in the outcome of the war. As he repeatedly explains, he will be lucky to get out of the war alive. It is a matter of probabilities to him, not skill. In the wider perspective, the war itself seems to be an inevitable product of the society in which they live. As the centuries pass, the war gels to permanence, or as the title puts it “forever”. Society and the economy only exist to support the war and the survival of mankind. There are no lofty cultural or artistic goals involved. Mr. Haldeman’s descriptions of battle and military life cooped up in ships for months are gritty, realistic, dark. Death is commonplace both in battle and outside it. People are mourned but the characters are fatalistic about the whole thing. They know that they will die, probably soon and unexpectedly, and their lives are made up of trying to find pleasure and joy even with that knowledge. The military is a faceless machine that grinds on without much more purpose than to exist. The contrast with the caring Mandella and Potter is striking. Mr. Haldeman’s genius, however, is only partly in his setting. The other part, I feel, is that this novel is so readable, so full of (admittedly dark) humor, so “light”, if you will. Even while filled with senseless death, it still makes the reader smile. Perhaps it is because Mandella is so easy to identify with. Despite everything, he has a rather sunny outlook on life. He tries to do his best. He is a nice guy thrust into uncontrollable circumstances and he tries to make the best of things.

This is one of the finest novels that I have ever read.