Reread: Tripoint, by C.J Cherryh

Are you happy? Do you think life is just amazing? Think any change would be to the worse?

Tom seems an ordinary guy, for a Family merchanter. But you know when C.J. Cherryh starts out writing contentedness all over the first handful of pages that things will change, and in Tripoint, the next to last of the Company War books, it sure does.

Because this Tom, he isn’t the ordinary merchant Family cousin. Unlike many others he do know who his father is – no one will let him forget, least of all his mother; he has gotten the story of how is mother was raped fed to him since his earliest years – his mother is obsessed with it, and he strives to achieve her love. Forever in vain, and he know it. Still strives.

One such attempt ends up with him being abducted by the very ship whose Captain is his father… and bit by bit we get to see another side of the story.

That Other ship, Corinthian, is known as suspect of being a go-between for the Mazianni, the renegade Earth Company Fleet. And here the text becomes almost Marxist in its choice of tale. The core of Marxism is, whatever mythology has to say about it, that economics is the over-ruling principle of human society. When choices are made, look to where the money is – you need to keep you and yours alive in this world, and you take the deal you are offered, to make odd ends meet. Idealism only feeds so many mouths.

And if the surface story is that about a boy and his heritage, and about everyone’s need to have a place and a mode of respect, the other story is about how chance had Corinthian run the errands that they do – others may look down at them but at least they are making a living. And as Tom discovers – for many of the crew it is the only decent place in a world dominated by Families that have no place for the odd relative, or for the unconnected nobody. Pro or con the Mazianni? Not everyone can afford to make that choice.

And in the end Tom discovers something about himself, besides that of an unexpected family.

As is clear by my recent bout of Company War rereads these are books that ought to be read.

What are you waiting for?!?! :-)

Review: The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald‘s The Dervish House is a hard book to review, at least for me. Because as much as I enjoyed the story and the storytelling I had a hard time with the characters. Not that they were unbelievable, or shallow, but because not one single one was likeable.

In some books characters who we, should we encounter them in real life, would consider neither nice nor personable and still the author makes us sympathise with them, or at least makes us understand why they are who they are. And some characters can be so interesting that we stop connecting their morals and aims with those of our own, respecting them for who they are, in their own right.

The Dervish House had NO character that I cared for, and there was several to chose from – a nine year old boy with a heart condition, an old side-stepped economics professor wallowing in self-pity, a flash yuppie futures trader and his überclass wife dealing in religious relics, and a whacked out junkie and his Islamist brother.

So, no “connect”, no one whose future I cared about.

Yet – an enjoyable book. How come?

First of all, like all of Ian McDonald’s books that I’ve read it is well written. Presumably well researched, oozing of local colour. No loose ends. Poetic.

Second, the world he describes is not ours, yet a plausible future extrapolation of it. He chooses a technology – in this case nano – and shows how the tech and human behaviour (and politics) combine to make up this new, changed, world. Not really a mirror world, the classic science fictional treat, but an idea of what might become of us if certain things happen. And at heart is human drives, human passions, human conniving; eternal themes, in fiction, in news reporting and in the history textbooks.

Lastly, they story itself is interesting enough to make me want to know how the jigsaw pieces he show, one after the other, me will fit together, in the end. And come together it did, in a very good way.

Poetic, even.

So, definitely worth reading, and recommended. Perhaps especially to those who don’t often read science fiction as the fictional science of The Dervish House isn’t far out, nor placed off-planet, and thus easier to accept.

Review: Reamde, by Neal Stephenson

Reamde is not an easy book to review. It is a wast brick of over 1000 pages. My copy is, in my eyes, beautifully bound, partially deckle edged, and with the typography made by someone who actually wants to make reading a pleasurable activity. Which means I was biased towards it, favourably, even before I got around to read it.

Geographically the story starts in Iowa, then romps on to Seattle and China, before returning to north America via a side-trips to Taiwan and the Philippines respectively, and the plot-lines are equally disparate, romping, and – not to forget – with a body count on par with that of the goriest action flicks.

I chose the word “romp” because in some ways and despite the terrible things happening to unsuspecting and, to borrow a term from Stephenson himself – mundane, people, it is a book that is a pleasure to read.

The first person we meet is Richard. He is a fiftyish entrepreneur in the gaming business who decides to help his niece Zula, whose expertise is in magma flow modelling, by giving her a job in the company. Soon after her boyfriend Peter becomes entangled with shady people, for the simple reason that he needs money to stay afloat during the recession. Accidentally he transfers a virus to one of the mobsters, the result of which is that all the data the mobsters need to make money gets encrypted and held hostage in the World of Warcraft-like game T’Rain – the game made by Richard’s company. Pointers leads to China so the Russian mobster grabs his in-house Hungarian hacker Csongor, Zula, and her boyfriend and goes to Xiamen, to find the Chinese hacker and take him out. The mobster’s head of security, Sokolov, is secretly worried about the clinical sanity of his boss but doesn’t dare break a contract. And so it starts…

The people we learn to know are only trying to stay alive, to keep a head above the water and to continue to breathe, and by each of these moments they step by step slip so far into the realm of the outright unbelievable believability becomes a moot point – each step was reasonable so the end result must be reasonable too, right?

No. The end result is not reasonable, it is way over the hill. People gets humiliated, people get shot, people dies. The bad guys kills indiscriminately. They also get killed that way, whenever possible, because soon enough it is clear to the reasonable mundane people that it is the only way to stay alive.

A real thriller, in other words, and in the true sense of it. And I loved it. Absolutely loved every bit of it.

And yet I am a wee bit disappointed. Even when smiling a bit over the brief stop-over in the Philippines, a country featuring heavily back in Cryptonomicon, and even as I was worried over the fate of this character or that, I missed the Big Ideas part that often are so central to Stephenson’s books. In this Reamde is more kin to Zodiac or Cobweb (of which Cobweb is the one worth picking up – it dates back to the anthrax fears of the late 90’s) than it is to Anathem.

Anathem, on the other hand, was the ultimate Big Ideas novel, so admittedly it is unfair to compare the two. Because a good romp, a good thriller and some decent well-written suspense, can be a fantastic experience too. And that Reamde is.

Definitely recommended.

Review: Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Blue Mars, which concludes Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy, continue in the tradition of it’s predecessors. The style is disconnected and rambling, telling a tale seemingly free of storyline or plot, through the eyes of a shifting gallery of protagonists. Sometimes it gets intensely detailed, sometimes extremely sketchy – a decade of someone’s life can be covered by one single sentence.

I had an extremely hard time getting through the opening chapters. They detail the formation of the Martian Constitution and legal system, which was a tedious (and not very interesting) process for the character through whose eyes we see it, and tedious for me as a reader. With about two thirds of the book left, but with the majority of the story behind me, I felt like I had trudged around on Mars forever, with no ending in sight. Add to that scientific speculations ranging from eyebrow-rising to outright incredible, and I think you’ll understand why this book took four weeks to get through – a true tour de force.

So. Was it worth it? Definitely. Because this is not a novel, or even a set of novels. It’s a document chronicling a hypothetical future, an epic chronicle on a grand scale, displaying how the here and now transforms into history, and how that history changes the now and the perception of what really did happen. It also sketches a future model society, one I guess Robinson himself favoured as his personal take on utopia when the books were written.

As utopias go it’s OK – ideal societies always get too bubblegummy for my tastes but here it is acceptable, much because the chronicle concerns the voyage there more than the final state of things.

This trilogy is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the future, in economic and political systems and in societies and cultures. Endurance is a must, though, so not for everyone. And reading only one, or even two, of the books won’t do – if you’re in, you’re in for the whole three book journey. Because on their own these books aren’t much value. Epic. Epic. EPIC.

The Future is Now: Books in a digital age

In today’s paper edition of Dagens Nyheter there’s yet another news item about a smallish book publisher in crisis. Last year was all time low for the book business in Sweden, with a record low turn-over in bookshops all around.

So, let’s look at bookshops. Do they sell books? Well, yes, but not mainly. The people owning the large chains, like Akademibokhandeln, have decided people don’t buy books… so instead they have turned into miscellanea shops. Things like paper and pens – that’s no big leap. Same with magazines. DVD’s? Chocolates, olive oil?!?! An instore Apple store?!

Well, I can actually see the justification for the Apple store BUT if you’re really committed to the digital age, perhaps you should have other brands as well… But no.

Space isn’t infinite, and these new things has pushed actual books to the back of the shops. And as someone has made the (insane) decision that people shop based on book covers covers should be exposed, not spines, which results in even less books per available shelf. And with little space you have to restrict yourself to a few best selling titles… and suddenly the difference between the book rack at the line to the check out counter at the supermarket and the bookshop has diminished beyond recognition.
And I don’t go there, because I can’t find the titles I’m interested in.

Talk about digging one’s own grave.

At the same time lots of people are talking about ebooks. I’ll hereby state that I love paper books. I love my shelves and the atmosphere the lend our flat. I love the touch and smell of books, of pulp and printers ink. I also enjoy ebooks, for their portability and for sheer reasons of space – my shelving space, like that of the bookshops, is not infinite. Those books that I own in an electronic format are actually e-editions of books that I already own, in paper format. This, to the publishing business, is actually a chance to larger sales. But the people up there doesn’t read books, apparently, and don’t socialise with people who do it either, not beyond the supermarket trash/flash. So they don’t know about patterns and opportunities like these.

On another level ebooks are considerably easier to make – yes, some manual work if the original file doesn’t use correct mark up, but beyond editing and proofing it’s just straight to the desired medium – no stock except the digital file, no costs for printing, no costs for shipping, no costs for handling unsold copies…
Marketing and editing still will be very much needed, but at the same time the possible audience has grown to encompass the whole globe and just not a specific country or region.

The possibilities are overwhelming. An online acquaintance, situated in Australia, complained yesterday that getting his hands on a certain graphic novel because the shipping, from France, would equal a week’s salary. So the publisher won’t do that sale.

Some of them publishes some books in e-format. But often just odd books, or best sellers.

In reality book sales would benefit hugely if all back catalogues were reissued as ebooks – especially for genre writers, like crime, mystery, science fiction… the back catalogue is essential, because they tend to write more than one book featuring a special character, be it officially labelled as series or not. Not to mention that niche writers would be cheaper to publish, and would more efficiently find their way to their readers.

But we all know why the publishing houses won’t rise to this. They would have to scrap most of their present infrastructure, including the knowledge of how to write contracts. Hugely impopular, especially with leaders, owners and managers that are clueless in the digital landscape.

So they sit there, with their financial losses, watching sales decline and blaming it all on the “financial crisis”, while we, the readers, lose our access to good books.

Idiots.

It’s not the State, it’s the Megacorp that watches you…

…and the big difference is in a democracy what State knows you can get it to release to you, or you can control what they control, by voting on different policies. In a democracy you can join a party, or start your own, and you’re allowed to have your thoughts.

What we now live in, and what we are watching emerge, most of us passively, some even in a sense of wonder about what science and technology can do, is something else.

Already the bank issuing my card knows what my purchase patterns are, even if they don’t know exactly what it is that I buy. And the large chains knows perhaps not your over all patterns but they know a lot of specifics, like if I shop lots of cat food (“probably has a cat”), or that I buy bread and milk and ecological fruits and veggies. Even if you’re not a member that can track this, as long as you don’t pay cash. Which fewer and fewer do, partly because the shops encourage the use of cards.
And if you’re a member of some chains, who owns not only grocery shops but book shops, shops for home electronics, for clothes… then they know A LOT about you – what you eat, what you read, what sizes you and your kids are.

Trends are more and more shops, or local/national chains, are bought by large multinationals. And then it’s not just the local chain who knows all about you – now some distant number counter with whole divisions devoted to analysis of all of this data, to predict when what to market to whom, when.

And when the rfid tag gets incorporated in products they can even track where you take that product. And it’s not some common interest but a purely economic one, unhindered by us humans.

Some might gawk in awe.
I for one am unable to.

And I think of the future Brazil, as described in Ian McDonald’s book Brasyl.

It’s not only integrity going up in smoke. It’s every thought of independence, of equal rights, of justice, and of a democratic state.

Not by means of any single little instance, but the waves chipping away at the foundations… they seem so innocent, and one day the house falls into the river.

And then it’s too late.

Way to late.

Review: Heavy Time, by C. J. Cherryh

I know, I’m reviewing them in the wrong order, but it’s a reread review and I started out with Hellburner just because that was the book I remember liking the best.

It was not my first reread of Hellburner, either, but this was my first reread of Heavy Time. In retrospect I think that was because when I finished the pair I a) felt them to be very different, and b) while I had enjoyed Heavy Time I had enjoyed Hellburner more. Well, now is the time to admit it – I was wrong!

Hellburner does stand on it’s own. Yes. But – reading both of them is preferable; even recommended. At least by me.

Heavy Time tells three different tales, at least on the surface. It tells how Ben Pollard, Sal Aboujib, Meg Kady and Paul Dekker came to know each other. It tells about how small people are exploited by big corporations. And is sets the stage for the Company Wars suite, in which this is the first book, chronologically; sketching how the push to build the carriers affected corporations and small people both. While the perspective is intensely personal, often claustrophobic, it’s also more issue-oriented than it’s sequel; the politics are obvious there too, but the focus is on the people and what happens to them – that we might not agree, from a value judgement point of view, that sinking money in military tech aimed for use in a war Sol is doomed to lose is sane we still want the ‘program’ to succeed. Because that’s what the protagonists want.

In Heavy Time the we don’t get to see much of the military but they’re part of the “establishment”, and the “establishment” is presented as corrupt; as being backwards; as having the “wrong” ideas about what’s going on out in space – we view life from the eyes of the disenfranchised, the alienated and the outcast, with all what it means.

Maybe this difference between the books was what got to me the first time, and what made me decide I liked the sequel better. Today I’d say they are both good, both worth reading.

I recommend reading them back to back, preceded by a reading of Downbelow Station but prior to Merchanter’s Luck, Rimrunners, Tripoint and Finity’s End.