The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

Bangkok in the 22nd century. In a post-hydrocarbon economy, rising oceans are kept at bay by seawalls and pumps. Genetic engineering has unleashed disastrous mutations, regularly generating deadly plagues. The world would starve except for the powerful American calorie companies, selling rice and grain to the world; sterile so that the customer remains dependent. Calories are everything, with humans and modified elephants generating power stored in springs for use in everything from ceiling fans to scooters. Gone is the old “Expansion economy”. Skyscrapers, deprived of the ease of powered elevators, have become slums.

The Kingdom of Thailand seems to have retained a seed bank from before the collapse; an invaluable treasure in a world where crops regularly fail and succumb to ever-evolving blights. Undercover as a Western industrialist, “Calorie Man” Anderson Lake is on a mission to find it and unlock its secrets. Meanwhile, the Thai Environment Ministry and Trade Ministry clash. One protects the crops and people from outside influence, while the other seeks outside contacts. It is a natural rivalry, and in this fierce, bleak and cruel future, the rivalry frequently degenerates into violence.

Emiko is a Japanese “windup girl”, a genetically created “New Person”, an artificial but fully sentient pseudo-human created to aid the aging Japanese population. She is reviled by the Thais, who see her as an abomination and would gladly kill her on sight. Abandoned by her master when he returned to Japan, she must now work in a brothel, shown off as a perverse oddity. She was created to aid humanity, but ironically humanity’s creation is the unexpected chaos element which inadvertently lays waste to the best-laid plans. On the nose, perhaps, but an excellent metaphor.

The world-building is stupendous, deep and intricate. While the reader can certainly poke holes in the logic of the technological infrastructure, in particular the ubiquitous ultra-powerful springs, and the ecosystem sending energy into them, these work well as a plot device. The restricted first-person perspective of the chapters forces the reader to immerse himself in the world and its bleak, fatalistic nature.

The heritage and tropes of past colonialism and its perhaps inevitable resurgence as the world once again grows more connected is a strong theme. Are certain cultures more prone to imperialist ambitions? What are the costs and benefits for cultures with natural resources to open up to those who seek to exploit them? What is the cost of internal division in the face of external pressure? Can either party learn from past mistakes, or are they just fueling a spiral into destruction?

The novel is full of astute and insightful observations of Thai and Chinese culture, as well as the behaviour of Westerners in East and Southeast Asia. An oftentimes depressing read, but a very impressive novel that stays with the reader for a long time.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

ReadyPlayerOneThe year is 2044. Human civilization is hanging on by a thread. Recession, energy crisis, disillusionment, unemployment, starvation and poverty have reigned for decades. The only escape most people have is in a massive interactive simulation, the OASIS. The OASIS is also where most people work, a virtual universe with everything from shopping malls to space monsters. Thirteen year old Wade has grown up in a slum and has nothing to show for himself but being a geeky kid with some computer skills when OASIS co-founder and creator James Halliday dies, leaving his entire multi-billion dollar fortune and control of his company to the winner of an elaborate and mysterious quest throughout the OASIS. During the next five years, Wade becomes one of millions of “gunters”, short for “egg hunters”, trying to crack the quest and win the prize, fittingly an “Easter Egg”. This mostly involves ridiculously extensive research into the pop culture of the nineteen-eighties, Halliday’s favorite decade, to the point that Wade can recite every line of dialogue of every popular movie of the day, sing along to every hit song, and win at every old arcade game. He also knows the most obscure details of Halliday’s life. Then one day, Wade makes a breakthrough.

Ready Player One is a fast-paced, exciting, page-turning thrill-ride which proudly displays its early Cyberpunk roots. As Wade progresses on his quest, he encounters both allies and rivals. In particular, a large and ruthless multinational corporation is aiming to take control of the OASIS by running an entire division of gunters and battling for the prize. The majority of the action takes places in the OASIS, providing a stark contrast to the bleak and impoverished world outside. In the real world, people are jobless and homeless, and even debt slavery is often a better option than freedom since at least it provides room and board. In the virtual world, the poor but skilled can be wizards and warriors, paladins for justice or evil villains. The virtual world affects the real one in worrying ways, however, and domination of the real one is very much tied to winning the battle for the virtual one. For our recluse hero, this is a shocking and painful realization. He is mighty in the OASIS, but really only a geeky and powerless kid in the real world. The transformation of Wade’s real self to match the heroism of his avatar is the true underlying quest in the book.

It is clear Mr. Cline did a lot of research on eighties pop culture himself. The entire novel is one big orgy of fanservice, specifically aimed at those fans who grew up in the eighties. As an avid consumer myself of John Hughes movies, old computer games and era music, it pushed all the right buttons. The question this: can a person who is not at least casually versed in eighties pop culture truly appreciate it? I would say yes. Even without understanding the myriad pop culture references, it is a great adventure novel, and an excellent metaphor for our despondent times. Just be prepared for the massive geek-outs.

5Rosbochs

Zodiac – Neal Stephenson

This novel is about an “ecoterrorist” named Sangamon Taylor and his weird and wonderful adventures. Laugh-out-loud funny and with some fabulous jabs at large corporations. Highly recommended.

The Big U – Neal Stephenson

Stephenson’s debut novel, about a gigantic and quite weird university. While the first third is mildly enjoyable, the rest of the novel devolves into an intricate mess of a plot. Written in an early version of Stephensons signature style, this book shows signs of the greatness to come for this author. Having said that, I advise you to avoid this one.

Woken Furies – Richard Morgan

The third Takeshi Kovacs novel is just as violent and X-rated as the previous installments. Morgan has not lost his gift for film noir cool and deep cynicism. So far so good. However, while Altered Carbon was a tightly written masterpiece and Broken Angels had an intriguing plot device, Woken Furies is much less focused. Sometimes it seems like Morgan is just taking the reader on a guided tour of Kovacs’ old stomping grounds on our hero’s native Harlan’s World. Granted, the guided tour is very very good, and Morgan’s prose flows smoothly, but some plot elements deserved more attention and it all seems a bit contrived. For starters, more could have been done with the duplication of Kovacs.

Broken Angels – Richard Morgan

Takeshi Kovacs is back in a new sleeve. This sequel to the incredible Altered Carbon puts Takeshi in the middle of a little war. The plot is not as strong as the one in Altered Carbon. While the previous novel is a film noir/detective story, this one learns more towards a Clarke-esque sense of wonder story. Unlike Clarke, however, it is focused of the failures of humanity to leave its flawed past of violence and greed behind. The characters are very strong and the prose is top notch. Still, it left me with a feeling that Mr. Morgan tried to stick a story around a thought he had, and the revelations at the end are a bit too construed to add coolness to the plot.

Still, if you like action filled cyberpunk, you will enjoy it.

Counting Heads – David Marusek

Marusek’s debut novel is set in a futuristic Earth of nanotechnology and cloning. Society is divided up roughly into four groups. Affs are the very rich, practically immortal beings who seem to spend their time spinning webs of power. Free Rangers are the middle class, living often in Charters, a sort of communes. The lower class is made up of clones, everything from Russes to Evangelines to Jennys, bred for their dominant traits. Jennys are nurturing and often work in healthcare, Russes are loyal and work as security and bodyguards, and so forth. These are real human beings, not robots, with feelings and aspirations, albeit somewhat restricted by their genetic heritage. Finally, Mentars are cybernetic beings. The story, such as it is, revolves around the death of a very powerful Aff, and the fallout from that. The journey takes us from the lofty Aff life to the day to day work of clones.

Marusek’s world is a masterpiece of imagination. Detailed and cleverly internally consistent, it sucks the reader in. Most of the characters are three dimensional and interesting, their flaws and motivations laid out in fascinating expositions.

Unfortunately, the novel has three big flaws, beginning with the rather weak first section. It serves as a very long introduction and is jarringly different in style and content from the rest of the book. The two main characters are unlikeable, and while that’s fine, they are also a bit dull after a while, like inhabitants of a bad reality show. The second flaw is the paper thin plot. The whole book feels a bit like a documentary. And while it is a very good documentary, the lack of a concrete thrust to the story made me almost give up after eighty pages or so. The third flaw is the author’s often excessive attempts at cleverness. A character may be introduced and go about its business without any explanation about how he or she fits in the grand scheme of things for another thirty or a hundred pages. While this is fine in itself, it is somewhat annoying to see it used as a plot device. Yes, Mr. Marusek, I did understand that all these characters are related, and you did explain it in the end, but complexity is not a means unto itself.

In conclusion, this is a very promising debut, but the style and world are presented too blatantly. The author seems to be saying “look at this cool thing I made” all the time. Contrast this with the rawness Gibson’s Neuromancer, where the world is just “there”, and fascinating concepts are barely touched upon unless the characters themselves explore them more deeply. I really wanted to like this book, but the flaws annoyed almost to the point of disgust. Having said that, I would still recommend it if you like futuristic world building.

Spook Country – William Gibson

This is the second book in the Bigend Trilogy, following the superb Pattern Recognition. Once again, Hubertus Bigend is looking for something. Our protagonist Hollis Henry is a former rock star who ends up entangled in a weird scheme to deter the laundering of money destined for Iraq.

As usual, Gibson knows how to construct a sentence, a paragraph, and a chapter in a flamboyantly artistic fashion that both dazzles and explains perfectly what is going on. Descriptions of places, things, actions and people are all finely balanced and constructed with the obsessive care that is the author’s trademark. The prose is simply breathtaking.

Pity about the plot, then. Nothing really happens as the characters chase after the initially mysterious but, after its revelation, rather pedestrian MacGuffin. The conclusion left me with a “so what?” feeling. The story was rather slow and plodding and the ending left me indifferent.

The Bridge Trilogy – William Gibson

Consisting of:

  • Virtual Light
  • Idoru
  • All Tomorrow’s Parties

This series of three books is very loosely connected through some of the central characters. Although Gibson’s prose stands out as always, I felt that these novels were more an exercise in writing in a cool fashion than actual attemts at storytelling. The writing is even more florid and pared back than in the Sprawl Trilogy, and the books are not terribly interesting in their own right. It is Gibson, and worth reading, even though he has done much better.

 

Jennifer Government – Max Barry

This starts off very well. It is a satire on globalization. The free market is everything and people change their last names to that of the company they work for. Take Mr. Hack Nike, for example. He is hired by the marketing department of Nije to stir up hype for a new line of trainers. The plan is for him to kill a couple of customers in order to give the product “street cred”. He subcontracts the job out to the Police. The government is weak and only handles crime. Jennifer Government is a government agent who used to work for an advertising agency. Definite Shades of “Snow Crash“.

This book is very clever in many ways, but disappoints in others. The story and characters are not much in themselves, but work pretty much only as vehicles for the author’s admittedly excellent satire. The novelty of the whole globalization run rampant idea wears off pretty soon, but it’s a fun, light-hearted read that kept me going until the end.

Market Forces – Richard Morgan

After several deep recessions, the rift between rich and poor has widened dramatically. Corporations pretty much run the world, and the only game in town is to work for one, if you have the guts for it. Tenders and positions are battled for on the road with car duels, often to the death. It’s all very cutthroat and cool, but Morgan has somehow kept it just this side of believable. Our hero, Chris Faulkner, works for the Shorn Corporation in the Conflict Investment department. His job is, in simple terms, to support some third world revolutionary with weapons and support. When said revolutionary is settled in as ruler, a percentage of the GDP of his country will go to Shorn.

Mr. Morgan has written a story of corporate warfare in the near future. Not too unexpectedly for this author, this book is full of cool prose, has an anti-hero, and contains some pretty extreme violence. As Morgan himself admits in the foreword, it is unashamedly inspired by films such as Rollerball and Mad Max.Cruel, but not really that far removed from some situations seen today. The difference is that the corporations in this future do not bother to disguise their naked ambition.

The book also contains the absolute best description of a long, slow break up I have ever read. Chris’ transformation from vague idealist to the ultimate antihero is brilliantly portrayed, and the end may surprise you, although in hindsight it was inevitable.

Marvelous and very very cool.

Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

This book blew me away. After five or six pages I was hooked. Very cool cyberpunk/noir in a future where bodies can used (as “sleeves”) almost like clothes (albeit very expensive ones; a normal person can only afford one “extra” body and thus double his lifespan). This naturally raises some rather intriguing philosophical questions about mortality (or the lack of it), but also about how the legal system would work under the circumstances. All this is but a backdrop for a fabulous crime thriller told in the first person. It is clear that Morgan was very much inspired by Blade Runner (down to the robotic voice saying “Cross now. Cross Now. Cross Now” at a zebra crossing). The gloomy, indifferent outlook of our hero is similar, and it is answered by a similar outlook from his surroundings. The onlyshortcoming with this book is that the plot becomes a bit convoluted at times. All in all, a very very nice read.

The Sprawl Trilogy – William Gibson

The Sprawl Trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer
  • Count Zero
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive

Gibson invented the cyberpunk subgenre with this plot-wise loosely connected series of books and he revitalized SciFi in the process. His sparse, cool prose and his approach to characterization mark the writing of many of his successors, probably chief among those Neal Stephenson.

His descriptions of cyberculture have aged well, since he was wise enough not to be too specific about hardware and software. He himself attributes this to the fact that he had never owned a computer at the time, although that is, in typical Gibson fashion, probably far too modest a justification. Another interesting fact is that these novels were written in the mid eighties, but illustrate many of the advances in computer technology which scientists and engineers are striving towards today in 2010. Whether his ideas on man-machine interfaces are simply the result of some very good thinking, and whether he inspired a generations of computer wiz kids is, of course, open to debate.

His work remains one of the pinnacles of SciFi, and his ability to distill the essence of something into a single, cool sentence remains, perhaps, unrivaled.