Book Reviews Life Reviews

Review: For The Win

For The WinFor The Win by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Honestly, this book is like "The Jungle" for our times, just it takes place in PC farms in Malaysia, India, and China. Interspaced a few times throughout the story of the characters are a few chapters about the economic principles of an increasingly multi-national world, written in a easy to understand fashion. The chapters that take place in China seem authentic with the current economic conditions there (low-educated workers streaming in from the countryside to be taken advantage of in the city-based factories).

The chapters in China with "Jie" (the pirate-broadcasting girl) — her introduction at all, really — seem a bit contrived, but hey: it’s a story. I’ll forgive it, and it helps move the book along.

I particularly liked the chapters dealing with the MMORPG "headquarters" — I can almost imagine a room like controlling World of Warcraft, subtly changing game mechanics and coefficients to keep players hooked.

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Review: The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm (Wheel of Time, #12; A Memory of Light, #1)The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seriously — and I hate to say this — it was almost better than the last few books written by Jordan himself. :X

The amount of characters are kept to a minimum — the action is easy to follow, and you don’t feel yourself being overwhelmed by characters being introduced that you may have not read about in years. My only criticism — and it’s small — may be that perhaps some of the character interactions aren’t fleshed out enough… but no, I’m not going to go there. I’m happy with the way it’s written.

Rand, in particular, develops into an incredibly interesting character in this book — I personally thought his development had stagnated just a bit, and The Gathering Storm has certainly made up for that!

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Review: Foundation and Earth

Foundation and Earth (Foundation, #5)Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit, the series got much better as it went along! I didn’t completely like the direction it took in this book (what happened to the Second Foundation? Would’ve liked to have seen a bit more of them), and the ending, though still good, was maybe a bit too "oh no! tune in next week!" for my tastes. But other than, a great ending to a great series!

Now to the final, last, prequel book.

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Review: Wolf Tower

Wolf Tower (Claidi Journals, #1)Wolf Tower by Tanith Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hey, not bad for supposedly "YA" fiction — wonderful SF-fantasy themes in an apparently rich world. What more can you want?

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Review: Foundation’s Edge

Foundation's Edge (Foundation, #4)Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not bad, not bad — better than the first three (learned that this book was written almost 25 years after the others!).

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Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wonderful, wonderful book. Seems to almost be more about the human element involved in maintaining a society that’s on the verge of collapse than it is about zombies — the zombies are almost just the backdrop for the story, only referred to as Z’s or "Zack."

This book will make you want to go outside and meet your neighbors for the first time — to make you wonder just how much "stuff" you really need to be happy.

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Book Reviews

Songs of Distant Earth

Songs of Distant Earth

By Arthur C. Clarke

Ah, good ol’ Arthur C. Clarke.  Even though he’s no longer with us, his optimistic beliefs in what humanity will one day accomplish live on.

In the world of Songs of Distant Earth, humanity has spread to the stars (only a handful of stars, however) in order to escape the Earth’s sun going nova, around the year 3650.  Humanity has known about the imminent fate of the Sun since the early 21st century, but in true human fashion, it has dragged its ass over the ensuing millennium and a half, sending out a few probes and human “seeding” ships on slow-speed journeys to other habitable stars.

The story stars on a star seeded by one of these ships — an idyllic, ocean world, whose few land masses seem to have weather that makes them exactly like Hawaii. In other words, a nearly perfect world.

This world has been on its own for nearly 700 years, having been seeded in about the year 2700 or so — at first, it’s colonists communicated with the Earth, sending back progress reports and whatnot, but their main transmitter disc for the planet was damaged in an quake, and the totally laid-back colonists just never got around to fixing it.

Well, eventually a ship appears in their system, carring a million passengers from the last, wild days of Earth before the planet was destroyed by the sun going nova, and this beautiful laid-back planet gets its first bit of true strife and trouble.

But, you see — this is an Arthur C. Clarke book, so there’s not really any “bad guys,” and everybody generally gets along. I’m not trying to point this out as a downside — his books are still very enjoyable. (Mankind’s antagonist isn’t a singular evil figure in an Arthur C. Clarke book — his antagonist is usually just the “unknown” or something that needs to be “explored.”)

Though, usually his books end on a sad note — and I’m not just talking about the death of a character or anything simple like that.  When you’re done reading one of his books, you’re always left with the idea that man is just a small, small part in the entire canvas of the universe, and that no matter what we ever discover, or how many millions of years we’re here, after we’re gone (and we will eventually cease to be) the universe will continue to spin on, and on, nearly forever.

Really humbling, you know?  Seriously — get to the end of the Rama series and tell me you didn’t nearly want to weep (for all the second book’s shortcomings, the series was amazing, trust me).

Book Reviews

Book Review: Friday, Jewels of Aptor, and the Fall of the Towers


By Robert Heinlein

I’m guessing that there may have been a lot of hubbub around Heinlein’s Friday when it was released — the little blurbs on the back speak to me of how this is Heinlein’s first “strong” woman protagonist, etc., etc., etc….

Yeah, I don’t see it.  Not that the character of Friday in the book Friday isn’t a strong female character — she is — I just don’t see the need for it.  The character of Star in Glory Road was a pretty damn strong female character, wasn’t she?  I mean Jesus, she was [spoiler here] — isn’t that strong enough? Can you get any “stronger” of a lead than that?  And he wrote that book 20 years prior.

Either way — Friday‘s a good book.  The lead character is a genetically created artificial person — an “artifact,” as they’re referred to in the book.  No different than a regular human being, of course, besides the super-strength and intelligence and imperviousness to illnesses and so on.  She works as a “combat courier,” shuttling top secret intelligence and small items back and forth across the lines of security present in this world — a world in which the entire Earth has seemingly Balkanized, that is, where all nations have further split into other small nations, and no real power is held by anyone except for large, multi-national corporations.  Friday really doesn’t know who she works for, and doesn’t care, as long as she’s given the respect she feels she deserves, which she gets working for her shadowy employer.

Now, the book is not “hard” SF, but there’s two instances in which Heinlein’s description of a particular part of technology sounded real neat to me.

First was his description of a world without money — one totally reliant upon electronic credit and debit.  It was really neat and really relevant to the way we perform business today, but I can’t for the life of me remember what page it was on, so blegh.

The other was this passage, where our protagonist was describing her trip to a library for a bit of research:

There was no reason for any of us to be bored as we had full individual terminal service.  People are so used to the computer net today that it is easy to forget what a window to the world it can be — and I include myself.  One can grow so canalized in using a terminal only in certain ways — paying bills, making telephonic calls, listening to news bulletins — that one can neglect its richer uses.  If a subscriber is willing to pay for the service, almost anything can be done at a terminal that can be done out of bed.

Like music?  I could punch in a concert going on live in Berkeley this evening, but a concert given ten years ago in London, its conductor long dead, is just as “live,” just as immediate, as any listed on today’s program.  Electrons don’t care.  Once data of any sort go into the net, time is frozen.  All that is necessary is to remember that all the endless riches of the past are available any time you punch for them.

Do you see what he’s describing there?  It’s the bloody Internet.  Now, granted, computers were around in 1982, and there was some idea that they could be hooked together to form networks, but the idea of a world-spanning network with all knowledge that humanity has available at your fingertips wasn’t a realization until the modern day world wide web, circa 1996-1997 or so.

Oh, but that’s not all.  Listen to this:

That morning I was speed-searching the index of the Tulane University library (one of the best in the Lone Star Republic), looking for history of Old Vicksburg, when I stumbled onto a cross-reference to spectral types of stars and found myself hooked.  I don’t recall why there was such a cross-referral but these do occur for the most unlikely reasons.

I was still reading about the evolution of stars when Professor Perry suggested that we go to lunch.


That afternoon I got back to Old Vicksburg and was footnoted to Show Boat, a musical play concerning the era — and then spent the rest of the day looking at and listening to Broadway musical plays from the happy days before the North American Federation fell to pieces.  Why can’t they write music like that today?

If that’s not an eerily-exact description of what it’s like to get lost in Wikipedia today, I don’t know what is.  And Heinlein was writing about this kinda of thing back in 1982.

Anyway, it’s a damn good book, and one of the last Heinlein wrote before he sadly passed away in the later 80’s.

The Jewels of Aptor

By Samuel R. Delany

I picked up this book not realizing that it was actually Samuel R. Delany’s very first work he ever published.  And let me tell you, it’s different.  I mean, if you’re like me and very first stuff you ever read by Delany was Triton and “Aye, and Gomorrah.”

I’ll just break it down for you — no orgies, no gender-bending hypersexual roles, no sarcastic social commentary — just a pretty straightforward fantasy story taking place in a civilization long after a “Great Fire,” which I take to mean nuclear war.  That’s right — it’s actually fantasy, not really SF.  I mean, it’s not bad, just not what I was expecting.

You can see some of Delany’s later themes taking their first roots here, though.  It’s a short work, though, so definitely give it a read if you’re a fan.

The Fall of the Towers

By Samuel R. Delany

The Fall of the Towers is actually a saga of three books that Delany wrote early in his career, too — right after The Jewels of Aptor, early 60’s.   It’s kinda like Jewels in that it’s kinda of a “serious” work — however, I really, really liked this one.

Taking place far in the future, somewhere (could be Earth, though it might not be), after another apocalyptic event has razed the planet and most of humanity has returned back to primitive roots.  There exists three distinct species of human in these days.  One is a squat, primitive, short form of human, a little over 1.5 m high, with very low intelligence;  these are called “neandrathals” by the characters of the book.  Next is regular humans — I don’t need to describe these, hopefully.  Finally, the final form of human present in this world is a quiet, extremely tall (2.5 m or more) form of human whom the “regular” humans call “forest guards,” due to their likeness for living in the vast forests present on this world.

The Fall of the Towers is an extremely long tale (not so much in words, but in depth), full of multiple themes and plots — far, far too many to go into here.  Just know that the main theme is that of the city (and empire) of Toromon — an extremely advanced city that has somehow escaped the apocalypse to reign supreme over whatever parts of the planet not rendered unlivable by vast amounts of radiation — and its eventual fall from grace due to corruption and “societal decay,” I guess you’d call it.

The book largely follows the lives of three characters — an escaped prisoner, a Duchess of one of the royal families of Toromon, and a forest guard with telepathic abilities.  They are being used as agents by an unknown entity in its fight against a being called the “Lord of the Flames.”

Somewhat present thoughout the series, but especially in the third book, is a very, very strong anti-war message.  And not just any “war is bad message,” but a Orwell-esque message about how war is sometimes used by very successful civilizations in order to “use up” surpluses of goods and money that could otherwise be used to improve upon its peoples’ lives.

Trust me — I’m barely scratching the surface of this book.  It’s actually really, really good, even if it’s an “earlier” Delany work and somewhat surprised me.

Book Reviews

Book Reviews: Glory Road and Dark is the Sun

Glory Road

By Robert Heinlein

Glory Road was a fun little book by Heinlein.  The entire book was written in his favorite first-person-narrator-who’s-sarcastic-as-hell style and spans about 200 pages or so.  It follows the tale of a young Korean War vet (you can glean this easily from the story) who’s soon whisked away to another universe/dimension by a woman he meets on a nude beach in France.  Ah, classic Heinlein.

The woman, accompanied by a squire of some sort, seems determined to name our narrator her “champion” to do various acts of bravery and assist her in certain quests.  And for the first half or so of the book, that’s about it.

But… the last third or so is completely different, and features the narrator and his Lady settling down — the book loses its lighthearted touch by this point and becomes very serious and downright depressing, as you’ll see.  But there, I’ve told enough. :P

I love reading Heinlein’s novels simply for the writing style, though — his books are some of the first ones I try to recommend to non-SF readers.

Dark is the Sun

By Philip Jose Farmer

This book still befuddles me now, even after a month or two of reading it.  I can’t tell if it was a translation or not (I don’t think Philip Jose Farmer is foreign, though I’m not sure — Spanish, maybe?), but it sure reads like one.

The sentence structure is strange, the character development is weird, the story seems to jump around here and there — I really don’t know what to make of it.  Anyone know?

The story has a neat backstory, though — taking place something like billions of years in the future, during the time of the Big Crunch, it features mankind in its last stages of existence, a broken people returned to tribal ways, worshipping old gods that haven’t been seen in years.

Even though reading this book could be a chore, I loved the amazing world that Farmer created — on this dying Earth are relics from billions of years of science and development.  You’re constantly discovering the relics of lost civilizations that have risen, and fallen, and risen back again.

Book Reviews

Quick Book Reviews: Part Three

The Sparrow

Mary Doria Russel

Like Perdido Street Station, I found this book from a list on the site (can’t remember the exact article) — some of the books I had read, and some I had never heard of before.  This was one of the latter, but most of the comments on the article spoke highly of it, so I went out on a limb and bought it.

Turns out it’s not bad — man’s first contact with interstellar life is received in the form of radio signals emanating somewhere around the Alpha Centauri system (conveniently close).  Whilst the UN and other worldly bodies are dickering around about what to do, the Catholic Church is actually quickest to the punch, organizing a mission (composed of Jesuits and some scientists) to encounter whoever or whatever is now living on those planets.

Oh, but that’s just how it starts.  The problem of near-light speed travel is actually solved by easier means than you think (just use an asteroid as your ship, and keep using its fuel to slowly accelerate you to near-light speed travel, turn around halfway, and decelerate), and with relativity the time passed by the people on the ship is only about 10 months, even though something like 20 years passes by on Earth (it’s amazing how the universe works, isn’t it?).

The story is told partly in the “present” (the goings-on of the landing party) and partly in the future by the only surviving member, a Puerto Rican priest.  He hasn’t aged more than a few years, though nearly 40 years have gone by on Earth, and he’s since returned to Earth.  However, he’s not well received, and is currently being softly interrogated by his fellow Jesuits on Earth.

Apparently, the landing trip didn’t go so well, and this  is slowly revealed through both the present-tense storytelling and the future.

Also, this book has one of the most fucked-up endings imaginable.  Luckily, it has a sequel, and I’m going to get it eventually.

(Seriously, my review of  this book sucks.  Read it if you get the chance — it’s not hard SF, and is very enjoyable.)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

By Philip K. Dick

The book that the movie Bladerunner was based off of.  It’s only loosely connected, as usual — they both have androids.  The main character hunts them.  That’s about where the similarity ends.

Good book, though, if short.  Earth is a dying world in the book (the result of nuclear wars), and everything is decaying and falling apart — not quite the bustling economy is present as was in the movie. :P