Read: Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

One of the reasons that science fiction is my preferred genre in fiction is the possibility of the what if. When at its best science fiction manages to combine a story that is interesting in and of itself, with rounded characters, good world-building, and a good pace, with a discussion of what kind of world we do want for ourselves. It can explore the large-scale economical and political ramifications, as well as the psychological effects, of different economic systems, of power struggles, and of ideologies, both on their own and as they clash. A few authors manage to consistently stay in that sphere. Ancillary Sword is only the second story by Ann Leckie that I have read but I think she manages to present the reader with the “what is it to be human” dilemma, in an underhanded sort of way that is very becoming in a time when smoke and explosions is par for the course.

Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off, with Breq, former One Esk Ninteen of the troop carrier ship Justice of Toren, having failed at killing the Lord of the Radch,  the three-thousand year old autocrat Anaander Mianaai.

On the surface Breq is ordered to an adjacent space station, to keep the station, the planet, and the people safe from the civil war that now has broken out in parts of the vast Radch Empire. She – he? gender is utterly unimportant in the world of the Radch – has been appropriated by the Lord of the Radch, or rather by one of the factions of the multi-bodied emperor, and forced into the role of Fleet Captain, carrying the same surname as the supreme ruler. But here the story starts to acquire layers.

The Radch differentiates between Citizens – people who are perceived as “Radch”, a word that also means “civilised” – savages, the uncivilised, and ancillaries.

The civilised can be very uncivilised, while the uncivilised are not uncivil but rather just not part of the Radch culture. Ancillaries, though, are human bodies, harvested from the uncivilised worlds as the Radch “annex” them, to be used as avatars for ship and station AI’s. A ship AI is the ship, and so when Justice of Toren went down One Esk Ninteen was the only fragment left of that two-thousand year old entity,  once with hundreds, if not thousands, of ancillaries, all providing eyes and hands for the ship.

As the story picks up speed it is clear that Breq miss being one of many. She tries to interact with and through her new ship, Mercy of Kalr, but while faster, stronger, and older than any human, at the core human is what she is – and despite having reactivated her old ancillary implants she lacks the processing power or capacity to be part of the ship. Being at multiple places at once is just not feasible anymore.

Is she human? Is the ship human? The station? Breq attracts attention when she interacts directly with station and ship, treating them as of equal value as the humans, some of who in their quest for perfection actually try to impersonate ancillaries.

While on one level it is fully possible to read Ancillary Sword for the political drama it is also possible to read the story as a discussion on what it is to be human. In times such as ours, when machine learning is starting to leave the labs, with mobile devices packing enough computing power to connect us to a grid of many such learning machines, the question of what it is that makes us human is more relevant than ever.

A long way from The Caves of Steel, but also kin to that universe.

A pleasing reading experience.

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Read: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

I will not lie. After the inspired and inventive Ninefox Gambit Raven Stratagem, the second Machineries of Empire book, was a bit of a disappointment. Well crafted, as expected from Yoon Ha Lee, but not as contagious as the first instalment.

Ninefox Gambit followed Kel Cheris, with a side of Shuos Jedao. This time the story is spun around the blank gap between the end of Ninefox Gambit and the start of Raven Stratagem. Is Cheris as dead as she seems to be? What is Jedao up to? What is Shuos Mikodez up to, and where in space and time is Nirai Kujen, the enigmatic mastermind behind the hexarchate?

Soaked in elaborate and nestled conspiracies, rooted in a world that is alien at least to me, the mathematical noob – “exotic” tech such as “mothdrives”, behaviour imprints such as “formation instinct”, or abilities such as “enthralment”, or the ability to kill a person just by touch; all made possible by “calendar” mathematics – Raven Stratagem gets a bit obscure; lost in its own cleverness.

On seemingly losing Cheris as a centre to the story we never get another character to root for. Instead the tale switches between multiple points of view while weaving a web of politics, but without ever getting close enough to any of the main players for real attachment to take place. There are some spectacular space battles, lots of fireworks, some intense moments, and I do enjoy the alien-ness of the setup, even when I don’t get it, but somehow it doesn’t embeds itself under my skin.

Definitely not a bad read, and some of the characters had promise, but too great a need to set the stage for the next instalment and not enough interest in the main players negatively affected the overall impression of Raven Stratagem.

Hopefully the third instalment, Revenant Gun, rumoured to be released around June 2018, will put character development back in the game.

Now we wait.

Review: Rule 34, by Charles Stross

Fast, fun, and highly rhetorical if not downright political. The standalone – yes, I think it works well on its own – sequel to Halting State Stross‘ Rule 34 is a good read.

The story revolves around sidestepped and showed sidewards Inspector Liz, a set of murders that are too coincidental to be coincidence, and the cast that comes with it.

At first the way the story is told throws me a little. To tell a story from different perspectives is relatively common in modern SF; that was not unusual. No. What got to me was that the story of every person is described as by someone else. Soon enough I got used to it, to the extent that I started to reflect on it… and indeed – it is a clue. The track grows stronger in the last third of the book, where clues are dotted all around – sometimes begging you to backtrack what you read, to check the way another person experienced it… and so the ending does not surprise.

Still, done in a neat way, so not to depend on the surprise moment.

Like with Halting State I think anyone living in the modern world should read it. Not for its poetic values and fantastic storytelling. There are, after all, better authors than Stross out there. No, you should read it because it is highly relevant to the times that we live in, asking questions about where we’re headed, and how.

This perfect day, indeed.

Review: Betrayer, by C.J. Cherryh

It is high praise for C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series that when I received notice that my copy of Betrayer had landed at the SF bookshop I went to town after dinner to get it, arriving 15 minutes prior to the shop’s closing time.

Despite some problems with continuity, like certain populations varying in size (and with no small numbers, either), or with proof-reading the richness of the world, the step by step discovery and understanding of a very different culture, and the character interplay drags the reader into it, book by book, making it a personal experience.

Did this latest instalment live up to expectations?

My first reaction was “it’s so THIN”. So few pages… and the cover is not that well executed; it feels as it was done in great haste. But what counts is between the covers, so I dove into it, closing my eyes to the visual representation on the outside.

At first it was slow going. Not because I couldn’t read but because nothing much happened, storywise.
One of the things I liked with Deceiver was it was full throttle from the very start. Betrayer is a return to the older format were the first third to half is dedicated to reiteration of what happened earlier and to build-up. This builds tension, and ensures the reader remember the pertinent parts when things go sticky, so fills a purpose, but to someone like me, who have read the previous instalments a number of times, it’s a wee (very wee!) bit boring. The world in itself, and the renewed acquaintance with the people, makes it less so, though. And soon enough the pace quickens, which is reward enough.

The story itself, then. WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!!!
A handful of pages in quiet Algini reveals the existence of a rift within the Assassins’ Guild with a splinter faction trying to wreak havoc in the aishidi’tat – a reaction to the transformations to the atevi culture and economy (and political power) in the aftermath of the return of the Phoenix 13(?) years earlier. The renegade faction has manoeuvred to use Machigi and his ambitions on the Western coast as their smokescreen, making him the focus of the aishidi’tat, but with Bren’s, and then the dowager’s, arrival in Najida and then Bren’s arrival in Tanaja, their hand is forced.
Neither the dowager nor Bren had any idea this renegade faction existed and neither had they any idea the legitimate Guild had worked long on exposing and handling these renegades. They thought what happened (in Conspirator and Deceiver) was a plot amongst local lords, the infighting normal to the Marid area, and both finds themselves in over their ears.

Action commences.
END SPOILER

When the dust settles and the book is over my main urge, despite putting another and very interesting read on hold, to go back and reread all of this fourth story arc.

Definitely not a book to start this series with, and perhaps not the strongest instalment either, but definitely a worthy episode for us who need our shot of Foreigner Universe every now and then.

Review: Look to Windward, by Iain M Banks

After having made several tries at other books I decided I wanted to return to the Culture. My choice fell on Look to Windward, the seventh novel set in the Culture realm, and previously unread by me.

To be honest I don’t know how much of this desire to revisit this particular universe stems from my esteem of the other Culture novels that I’ve read and how much of it emanates from curiosity fed by a discussion about Banks’ works that I’ve been party of. What is certain is that my first one – Use of Weapons – was a love/hate relationship. It was poetic and violent and generally promising, until the revelation at end, which turned my stomach and sympathy both. Yet something drew me in (it was something about the language and tone that I just couldn’t resist!) and I decided to read on, this time beginning from the start. So, Consider Phlebas. Which was gory, hopeless and bleak. Still, something I loved in there – the language, perhaps, and the promise of more to come?

Initially I had meant to continue in some kind of publishing order. I did not. As readers of this blog might remember I recently read Surface Detail. Which is the latest one. Seems kind of backwards, doesn’t it? The reason for the rush was Surface Detail got selected as the January group read over at Shejidan. I knew I would read the book sooner or later, anyway, and a good discussion only adds to the reading experience. So I jumped the train. Both the book and the ensuing discussion left me wanting more.

Hence Look to Windward, which most people pointed at as THE Culture novel.

What did I think of it?

Poetic. Sad. Worthwhile. And a bit of fun, too.

Grieving soldier Tibilo Quilan gets an unspecified offer which promises him death at the end – the only thing he really want ever since his wife – also a soldier – died in the lingering end of the civil war they both fought in.
The hidden powers behind what later appears a conspiracy manipulates him towards a horrendous task which step by step is revealed to the reader.

At heart this is a story about what war do to individuals and about the often hidden agendas behind the official reasons for war.
Or, this is what the story is about, to me – reading the analyses made by others I can see how different readers interpret the Culture stories in different ways, depending on background and personal politics.

This possibility of personal interpretations is one of the things that makes the Culture novels such a rich experience and while I can understand this is not everyone’s fare I do recommend them highly, with Look to Windward as perhaps the most accessible one (of those that I’ve read) – a good entry point, especially for those not previously very familiar with the SF genre.

Review: Once A Hero, by Elizabeth Moon

I do not read the Familias Regnant books for deep discourse but for entertainment so Once A Hero surprised me a bit with being a somewhat darker than the previous three.

The protagonist, Esmay Suiza, has recurring and extremely disturbing nightmares, and her lack of will to confront and treat these symptoms affects her Fleet career negatively.

After having saved the day at the Xavier battle (as told in Winning Colors) she faces a court martial for treachery and mutiny. Exonerated she leaves for home, a place she has no love towards, and learns both why the nightmares and why she have sought a new home, in the Fleet.
Returning to Fleet she is afraid of getting labelled insane, something that can only end with her being sent to the one place she will never go back to – where her family lives.

Her personal struggle and doubt brings depth to a story that else would had been a not only predictable but shallow space opera. That a roomful of male admirals should cede critical command to a young (my guess is 25-ish) female Lieutenant with a doubtful track record is beyond belief – it just doesn’t happen. And that a band of 25 culturally illiterate commandos can take over a major Fleet vessel, staffed with 25.000 people… well, makes all those Bruce Willis saves the world-films like factual truths, eh ;-)

My main objection, though, is people are dying left and right, some of them while being abused, but you never feel affected by it. This book is as clinically clean as a Star Trek Next Generation episode, stuffed with red uniformed nobodies that gets mutilated and what not but without the stench and the terror that should go with it.

I still liked the book. It’s a capturing and fast read, suitable for when the mind can’t take serious thought for long. Like when you’re down with fever and “almost pneumonia” (to cite my doctor), which at the time I was. (Or is – I’m not completely recovered even yet.)

Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

We follow homicide detective Meyer Landsman, and we find him when he’s at his absolute bottom; living in a flea hotel, with a drinking problem, and as the world is turning a fellow unlucky is found murdered in another room a few floors down. As the story unwinds we get a waft of that precious 90’s X-files feeling as we zap through a few days on the Alaskan coast, in an imaginary near future where a lot of things turned out in another way, with a small part of that frozen country a jewish enclave.

I really don’t like the hard boiled style of some crime novelists; the fake macho veneer, the affected tone of an author sitting back in his or her insulated life. In this particular case I’m prepared to make an exception, though, because Chabon uses it to good effect and with a steady hand.

*SPOILER WARNING*
What irked me, though, when I was through reading the book, was how miraculous recovery Landsman made from his drinking habit. Not very believable, in my humble opinion.
*END SPOILER*

Maybe not the most revolutionary book ever written, but witty, entertaining and very well crafted. I can recommend reading it.