The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

Harvard linguist Melisande Stokes is approached by government operative Tristan Lyons with a request to translate a large number of ancient documents, once she has signed a non-disclosure agreement. As she works through them she notices a large number of references to magic. It turns out that magic actually existed until 1851, when the continued progress of technology led to its disappearance. Things take a mysterious turn when they try to build a chamber within which magic can work in the present day, and a surviving witch contacts Melisande via Facebook. In short order, the shadowy “Department of Diachronic Operations” is born, using magic to travel back in time and change history. As the bureaucrats get involved, events immediately veer off in unexpected and undesired directions.

The backbone of the narrative is Melisande’s “Diachronicle” (trust a linguist to pun on a top-secret technical term) where she describes her adventures with D.O.D.O. Large chunks, however, are diary entries and letters by other characters, as well as transcripts from messaging apps, wiki entries and so on. The contrasting styles, and frequent clues as to relative technical ability given by the “author” of specific passages, makes D.O.D.O and its denizens come alive, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during secret operations, meetings, and time travel.

The premise is clever, and more than a bit silly. However, the treatment of the entire situation by the government bureaucracy is most certainly not. And that is one of the important themes of this book. The intersecting shenanigans of bureaucrats, academics and operatives working together make for hilarious passages of dry humour, while at the same time the reader is appalled at the lack of common sense of bureaucrats who spend too little time in the real world. Even the use “official-ese” can change perceptions, and perception is a very important part of this story, on several levels.

The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García & Linda Antonsson

TheWorldofIceandFireThis is a companion volume to A Song of Ice & Fire, basis for the Game of Thrones TV series. It serves as a history and geography text for the world and is written from the viewpoint of a maester in the Citadel. Interestingly, it leaves a lot of ambiguity, which feels realistic because most historical “facts”, especially remote ones, are distorted by the passing of time, just as many geographical “facts” are distorted by distance. The “author” refers to this many times.

For any fan of the books or the TV series, this is an interesting read and an excellent reference. The maps and illustrations are gorgeous and greatly help set the scene not only for this book but for the other works in the Song of Ice & Fire universe. Reading on a Kindle doesn’t give the reader the full effect, but Amazon Cloud Reader can be referenced as needed.

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Outlander (Outlander I) – Diana Gabaldon

Outlander1OutlanderClaire Beauchamp Fraser is a nurse who has just been through World War II. She goes on a second honeymoone to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, a man she has met for only a few days during the war years. As she touches a stone in an ancient standing stone formation, she is transported back in time to the 1740s, a time which in Scotland was characterized by the Jacobite uprisings. She finds herself abducted by a band of Highland men and taken to Castle Leoch, where the locals are highly suspicious of her claims to be a woman of fine birth who has been robbed by highwaymen.

Despite the painstaking historical detail and the romantic nature of the setting, I found myself rapidly bored with this book. The use of the first person voice only works for me if the narrator is at least somewhat self-deprecating; preferably even snarky. Claire is neither of these things, and she comes off as quite a bit too serious. The romantic bent of the novel is also too strong, with Claire almost instantly attracted to the rugged Jaime, a handsome outlaw with a quiet demeanor and a well-muscled body. I gave up after a hundred pages or so.

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The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

TheGraveyardBookA toddler slips out of his house just as his parents and older sister are murdered by a mysterious man called Jack. He walks up to the local graveyard and is taken care of by the dead, who name him Nobody. His upbringing is unusual, to say the least.

The premise behind this book is clever in the extreme. It completely subverts the trope of a graveyard being a frightening place with shadowy monsters lurking. For “Bod”, the graveyard is home and refuge. It is where he plays, where he is educated, where he feels kinship with his people. Death is not something to be feared, but an event which changes people.

The novel is semi-episodic to start, with every chapter almost a self-contained shorts story, but later the thread of the initial murder is picked up, leading towards a resolution. Gaiman’s whimsical style certainly goes well with the setting, and I found myself smiling as Nod interacts with the dead from many different epochs, greeting and speaking to each with the mannerisms appropriate to the age.

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Fate is the Hunter – Ernest Gann

FateistheHunterFor aviators, this is the ultimate, classic memoir. Ernest Gann started flying in the late thirties, flew transport planes all over the world during WWII, and continued flying for airlines thereafter. This book is part chronicle of his many adventures and misadventures, part collection of thoughts on life and flying.

Even a pilot with my limited experience can immediately discern the fundamental authenticity in the erudite voice of this true aviator. The book is episodic, with sequential periods and incidents within serving to move Gann’s destiny forward. Gann writes elegantly, peppering his oftentimes long whimsical tangents with razor sharp understatement. Technical matters become uncomplicated as they are reduced to how they really concern the pilot and his mental state. The essence of what it feels like to fly, in clear skies, in storms and in pouring rain, in Arctic winter and Saharan oven and Amazon jungle, is eloquently explained and examined, with an eye for that poetic and magnificent experience that truly attracts pilots towards flight.

Quite a magnificent book for pilots, and one that will hold the interest of others as well.

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Interface – Neal Stephenson & Frederick George

This novel is about a presidential candidate with a chip in his head connecting him to a computerized polling system. There’s much more to the story than that of course, and it was a bit of fun, with some really great characters. If you love everything that Stephenson has written, you might enjoy this too.

The copyright for this one is from 1994 in the name of Stephen Bury (Frederick George is Mr. Bury’s pseudonym). My theory is that Stephenson rewrote some of the book. You can pretty much tell where Stephenson has had a hand in the writing, and this makes it uneven in quality.

The Flying Sorcerers – David Gerrold & Larry Niven

Shoogar is the greatest wizard his primitive village has ever known. Then a strange new wizard literally drops from the sky. Of course, they new wizard comes from a very advanced culture. Mayhem ensues.

There is a lot of humor in this book as magic meets technology. There are also many more or less good puns. I enjoyed it but it is far from a must read. The joke gets a bit old.

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.

 

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Fabulous gothic fantasy novel set in a set of parallel world under modern day London. Our hero is an ordinary securities guy working in the City of London. He has a job, a fiancé, an apartment, a meaningless life. One day, he is kind to what he thinks is a homeless person. This act propels him onto an adventure beyond his wildest imagination.

The clever and twisted use of London iconography and places is of course of most value if you actually know something of the city itself. However, anyone can enjoy this novel of courage and tolerance, of destiny and choice. Enchanting.

Zero History – William Gibson

This is the last book in the Bigend Trilogy, and thus sequel to Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. While I loved the former and thought the latter was pretty good, I found Zero History to be a total yawner. We follow once again the odd adventures of Hollis Mason and Milgrim as they chase down obscure pop culture details for Hubertus Bigend.

It’s all very cool and trendy, with the excellent cutting edge prose that is Gibson’s trademark.  Unfortunately it is also very soulless and uninteresting. Taken individually, the scenes in this book are splendid. Elaborately crafted little vignettes, meticulously describing a setting and the actors inside it. As a narrative, I felt it didn’t seem to go anywhere. This is the first Gibson book I have actively disliked. I gave up about halfway through since I honestly couldn’t work up the least motivation to pick the book up again.

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This graphic novel is one of the classics for good reason. Well drawn and masterfully written, it is a tale of a disillusioned world and its disillusioned heroes. The heroes are well into middle age as they must unite again to save the world. Even if you are skeptical to the format, you should give Watchmen a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

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.

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.

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.