Read: An atlas of countries that don’t exist, by Nick Middleton

An atlas of countries that don’t exist, with the additional title “a compendium of fifty unrecognized and largely unnoticed states” is nothing less than brilliant.

Naturally it is limited; the 232 pages can’t hold all knowledge there is about all “unknown” – or as it may be: little known – states, countries and nations that presently exist or has existed, in modern history. Middleton helpfully informs any reader who takes the time to read the introduction how he made his selection, including but not stopping at a discussion of the definition of a country. Or state. Or nation. And so, if you’re looking for your specific favourite largely unnoticed country it may well be that it is not presented in this relatively slim volume.

Also well be noted that this is not a scientific textbook. Each country gets two spreads – a title spread with a summary, and an information spread consisting of a one page map, plus one page of text.

The text is largely anecdotal – it starts with a person or an historical event, and goes on from there to sketch an outline of the most defining characteristics or events as regards the birth, rise, and sometimes fall, of the country at hand.

Each spread on it’s own may feel a bit thin, though elegantly displayed. But as in so many other cases the sum is greater than its parts: we see through this book the story of European colonisation, of Soviet, US, and Chinese imperialism, told from the perspective of the conquered and subsumed – the annihilated, neglected and exploited – spiced with Western libertarian delusions of grandeur, family owned colonies, and citizens of the world projects.

As such it is a starting point for further explorations into several dimensions: one can chose to explore the fate and histories of individual tribes and cultures, or one can chose to look at the macro-political level, the power structures, and the economic motivators, that formed the world as we know it today. Or one can look to what made a specific region or nation, and start to see beyond the mono-cultural and into the more complex situation.

Of course I think some countries could had been excluded. Of course I think other countries should had been included. And on a nit-picketty level I would had liked the maps to show national borders in those cases when an unknown nation is spread over several internationally recognised sovereign states.

I do not miss a bibliography. As stated before this is not a scientific text, and I appreciate that I am allowed to find my own sources when exploring deeper. At points it took me on a journey into formerly unknown territories, branching out into topics that I had no idea existed. And I am not particularly illiterate in the topics concerned: I just hadn’t gone deeper into each region, prior to this.

I definitely recommend this book. And when I say “book” I mean the actual paper version, the hard copy. This is not a book to be listened to, or to browse on a screen. The full experience demands the physical object. That way it is worth it’s money.

It was the perfect gift to myself, on a rainy January night!

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Reread: Hellburner, by C.J. Cherryh

Checking my reading records on LibraryThing I realise that this is my sixth reread of Cherryh’s Hellburner, and while I am a rereader this is some kind of record in itself. One or two, yes, three if it is an exceptional book, but SIX times?

Several years ago I committed a review of it on this blog, too, though it held more spelling errors than I want to admit to… and I really want to make a note on it, so here goes nothing –

Written as book 5 of the 7 that makes up the Company Wars suite it nevertheless is is placed as the second one when timeline is considered. As such it tells part of the story from the beginning of what since Alliance Rising was published is known as the Second Company War, with the writer (and any reader who has read these books in the orer they were published) already knowing quite a bit about what will happen in what in Hellburner is “the future”.

We have already grown to distrust, if not dislike, the Fleet. They were once Earth’s, and Earth Company’s, military arm in a bid for power in the wide Beyond, but as the war turned into a no-win game for the EC the EC stopped providing for their Fleet. The Fleet leadership disagrees with the stand-down order, turning rogue. To supply themselves they have been forced to turn to robbery and contraband, terrorising star stations, jump points, and ships. That is were they are as we meet them in books further down the timeline.

Hellburner, then, tells several stories: how a collectively run Merchanter style fleet became the EC’s tool, headed by Conrad Mazian; how the giant carrier ships got their “riders” – i.e. their fast stinger ships; how the Fleet managed to co-opt people who did not agree with what was happening on a higher level.

Two specific features makes the book extra compelling to me.

First, the story is told from the eyes of the every-man. No one of the people whose perspectives we gets to share is in a position of power, not even the one who others perceive as “higher up”. He is indeed higher up on the chain of command, but wields no read power: he is the archetype middle manager, if well-intended.

Second, the way corporate warfare and desktop politics is depicted. I find the politicking going on extremely realistic, from the psychological profiles of the ruthless power-grabbers to the way the politics choice trumps what would be good for a project or mission, ultimately ruining all prospects of success… and how the psychopathic power-hungry ones’ gets a free rein by people who will have only ruin to collect in the long run… but see no other choice short term.

(Third, and I know this is an addition to my “two specific features”, is for what it gives to the fandom. Not only do we get to meet people who will feature later on, getting to understand a bit more of how they came to be who they were when we last met them – we also get a cameo from a ship of Company War renown, the ECS-5, later known as ECS Norway.)

I can see why people who expect space opera and drama might not enjoy this book. Too much politicking going on. I can see why people who expect military sf might not enjoy this book. Again, too much politicking, too little fighting, not enough battle-tactics.

That doesn’t mean that nothing happens – there is a lot going on, lots of drama. Enough to make the story into a miniseries, interweaving Heavy Time tidbits as flashbacks for background (Heavy Time is where we first meet many of the protagonists of Hellburner, a very different book, both can be read stand-alone).

And I just plain love the book. I will reread it several times more, of that I am very certain.

Read: Alliance Rising, by C.J. Cherryh & Jane S Fancher

In our universe but far ahead on the timeline, humankind took off and settled in space. The corporation that put them there – Earth Company – thinks it has a monopoly on… everything, despite there being a natural 6 year time lag, one way, in even the fastest communications route.

As with all prequels that gets published well after the readers know everything about what came after there is a risk: the risk of being too set within pre-existing conditions for real brilliance to shine. Not one wit of it is displayed in Alliance Rising; it is, plain and simple, a top class addition to an already great set of stories.

In later books the Hinder Stars are generally glossed over – hindmost, left behind by humankind’s progress through the Beyond, their only value being the link to Earth, and that’s a link that no one really wants, any more. Who wants to stay connected to a megalomaniac psychopath with an obsession with minute control?

(The reader is free to either just take this as a baseline parameter of the story, or to contemplate mega-corporation control mania as it appears in our part of the timeline.)

When the story starts we meet Ross and Fallan, of the merchanter ship Galway, as they sit in a bar at Alpha Station watching the boards track an unknown incoming, hoping it will not be too hostile, and joining in the general suspicion.

Outsiders seldom come to such an outskirts and down on luck station any more, not since Alpha stopped being able to offer trade in goods from faraway Earth. All shipments from Earth goes towards building a monster ship, and not enough goes to station maintenance, not to speak of trading: that has been the situation for at least two decades, now. The ship is huge and the fear is that it will rob the loyal but small merchanter ships of their trade; others fear it might not be meant for trading, but for enforcement: another kind of threat. Maybe that’s why the newcomer is here? Or maybe they run the errands of almost mythological Pell Station, coming to put Alpha out of business altogether?

Over the 346 pages of the book we get to follow what expires after the outsider ship docks, from Ross’ perspective, but not without hearing from the captain of said vessel – one JR Niehart, Finity’s End being the ship – and the stationmaster, Benjamin Abrezio, formally an Earth Company executive. It should come as no surprise, given the title of the book, that we get to see the birth of the Alliance, of the Alliance-Union Universe.

The story is well paced, well told – much as expected, and despite it being a collaboration between Cherryh and Fancher it feels like a solid one-author job.

A must-read for anyone who have read and enjoyed Cherryh’s stories set in the Alliance-Union Universe, and especially the Company Wars books.

One of the great joys of this Universe, our own but far in the future, is its plausibility. An empire that overextends itself, as in that modes of communication forces independence in the regions far from the centre (think ancient Rome), coupled with layers of power politics, and then the way these politics impact ordinary people and their lives. The parallel with present day is not blatant. No, the genius is in showing rather than telling, leaving the reader to connect the dots… or not, at her own pleasure.

One things is sure, though – the next instalment can’t come fast enough!

Read: Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty

You wake up in panic, no memory of what has happened to get you where you are, and apparently you and all your crewmates has been killed, some way or the other. You explore further and realise that all of you lack any memory of the past 25 years, and you don’t know who to trust.

Welcome to Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty, crime novel set on a generation ship destined for a 400 year one way voyage through the universe.

Bit by bit the individual, and what turns out to be the collective, story of each crew members unravel, told in a way so that the reader know more than both each individual and the crew together will or can know or understand until the very end, when everything comes to a perhaps not entirely surprising but pleasant solution.

I am not a big fan of the whodunnit, and not of the classical crime novel either. None the less this was a good read. Part of it was the way the story explores the consequences of cloning, both on an individual and a societal level, and how Lafferty uses this as a story device; also, it was a well crafted story.

On the down side it was hard to feel anything for any of the protagonists, or, as it may can be posed – a story of antagonists only.

Nevertheless I’d recommend reading it, and I will keep an eye open for other of her books.

Heard: The Consuming Fire, by Jon Scalzi

I finished The Consuming Fire right at the start of Yule frenzy and so apparently never got around to doing a proper review. And that’s a shame, because the book really deserves one.

Picking up where The Collapsing Empire ended it has the general feel of a “bridge” book – it adds context, it moves some plotlines forward, but lacking the breakneck pace of it’s predecessor.

The main story revolves around the various and intertwined conspiracies to overthrow Emperox Grayland II.  The trade monopolies – the Houses and their Families – and the legislature feel their short term profits threatened not by the impending threat of the collapse of the roads that knits their society together but by the much needed countermeasures, by the need to save the lives of the people and what it will do to their profit margins.

(The parallel to our present situation with climate change and climate deniers is so overt the story just barely can be seen as allegory, and even as I agree with Scalzi’s politics in this I must admit that I found the overtness of it a bit off-putting.)

In The Collapsing Empire we got reasonably close to Cardinia rather than her Emperox persona. In The Consuming Fire the story distances the reader from her: she’s a prominent player, yes, but we mainly get to see her from the outside. To compensate we get a lot more of Kira Lagos’ refreshing vulgarity (I had rather had both, though).

We also get a closer look at the Emperox’ Wu cousins, at the Nohamapetan family, and a shocking revelation about the history of humankind in space. Add assassination, high-handed politics, explosions… and you get a proper space opera, with a message, all of it presented by Wil Wheaton’s superb voice acting.

Not as exhilarating as the first book. Still, fun and well worth the time it takes to listen to it.

Now I just have to wait for what feels like forever before next instalment is released. Please, hurry up, will you?!

Heard: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Listening to John Scalzi’s short story The Dispatcher proved a pleasant experience, so when the time come to chose something new to listen to on my daily walk to and from work my choice fell on his The Collapsing Empire, performed by Wil Wheaton.

And a performance it is. I am sure the story is an excellent read, but the audio version is a delight. The attitude and demeanor of every character, however minor, is clearly communicated through the audio medium. There are of course many able voices reading books out there, but Wheaton score very high on the list. I haven’t heard him read anything else, so perhaps it is that he enjoy this particular story – I don’t know. Whatever the reason, the reading is good.

The story, then:  space opera.  Space opera galore. Humankind has never mastered the physics of faster than light interstellar space travel. Instead the society depends on “streams” in space, called The Flow. A ship can get onto the stream, and then has to drift along on it, until an “exit shoal” allows the ship to leave the stream. At these shoals human society has built space stations.

Some systems are connected to multiple other systems – others are not.

Naming is prosaic. “Hub” is where he most streams connect, and here’s where government resides; “End” is the most faraway system, with only one connection.

Politics and economy are intertwined, medieval in kind, and lead by the ruling Wu family by force of being in control of the Hub transport system. Other families have been awarded monopolies; in wine, fruits, anything you can imagine being traded. Families feud, vie for power, concoct schemes. In short, life goes on. Until. But then you knew that; no story if things just goes on as usual. And what changes is the one thing that the economy and power structure rests upon – the workings of The Flow.

The story has no main protagonist but is told from many interconnected viewpoints. Sometimes this can make a story hard to follow. Not so in this case, as each character has it’s distinct voice.

As any reader of this review already have gathered I enjoyed this book immensely, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the same books that I do.

Note, though, that the text refers to the audiobook version.

Now, on to the sequel – “The Consuming Fire”…

Read: Luna: Wolf Moon, by Ian McDonald

This is a book of both ups and downs.

The downsides first –

The story is told from a multiple perspectives. Some of these people I came to care about, others not so much.  And some people are just down-right black-and-white villains, without any redeeming or ameliorating features. To me that’s not a good thing. I can see how someone might be perceived as “evil”, but I want to at least understand the motives of that character or the villainy becomes a stereotype, a paper doll: not believable, lacking in authenticity. Not for real.

In a multi-volume story that dimension might take a book or two to develop; maybe the character needs to be a villain at first, and then we get the depth, the other perspective, later on, as an added dimension and storytelling feature. I’m OK with that. I’m also OK with it never happening, if the story is of the swash-buckling kind. Luna is not a fun romp. It is a serious chronicle about the war for power on the Moon. And I’m not entirely sure such a revelation of moral character is ever in the cards for the Sun family and it’s matriarch.

Also, I thought the sex scenes to be altogether gratuitous: not needed for either character or story development.

Then the upsides –

Once I had got into the culture and the behavioural set up of the Dragon families competing for power over the Moon it was easier to concentrate on the story and the characters. Given that it took almost 2/3’s of the first book, Luna: New Moon, to get into it enough for the reading to be easy, this is a good thing.

The storytelling is quite tight, as well, and I found myself drawn into the stories of the Corta Helio survivors – Ariel and Marina, Lucasinho and Luna, Robson, and Wagner, all of whom got caught up in Lucas’ grandiose scheme for revenge, together with the Asamoah and MacKenzie families.

In conclusion the Luna stories is Dallas in space. It is hard to find any redeeming features in any of the major players. It is the kids and the family members who kept their distance – the ones who didn’t want to get involved in the endlessly waged corporate war, but nevertheless can’t escape it, just because of their heritage – that one might feel for.

I never contemplated not finishing this book, and I fully expect to read the next instalment, when it arrives. Having read this far I need to know how it all will end.

I will not recommend reading it, though, not if you’re not already a fan of Ian McDonald’s writing, and not if dense political intrigue isn’t your cup of tea.

If it is – please go ahead and enjoy the ride!