Review: Change of Command, by Elizabeth Moon

With the exception of the ending Change of Command is one of the best of Elizabeth Moon‘s Serrano book I’ve read, yet. A wealth of complex motives, spread among a wealth of groups of people, sets the stage for a full scale galactic power struggle – in the midst of which is the Fleet officers Barin Serrano and Esmay Suiza, trying to get married; a counterpoint to the menacing seriousness of several megalomaniac righteous bastards competing for power, with or without knowledge of each other.

This book is far far removed from the lightness – despite the gravity of the topics handled – and boisterous adventurism of the previous books in the Familias Regnant series; something hinted at in the previous instalment (Rules of Engagement) but now come to full bloom… and I’m no longer so sure the Serrano/Familias Regnant books should be considered the fluff I’ve previously marked it as.

Sadly for everyone who haven’t read the previous books this one, despite it’s other qualities, does not stand on it’s own – rather it depends heavily on the previous books for story, background and character development, and not only that; it acts as a bridge to the concluding book – Against The Odds (which I’ll be reading next).
Which in itself says something about the quality of this series.
Or so I think.

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.

Review: Regeneration, by Julie E Czerneda

I find it almost impossible to write a review of this last part of the Species Imperative trilogy – I have no idea how or where to start, properly. Regeneration is the brilliant conclusion to a brilliant story, but it is also impossible to understand it – and this review it – as a single book.

Every species try to find it’s way to survival. Sometimes that survival comes at the cost of the survival of other species. Will Dr. Mackenzie Connor and her team succeed in their valiant try to save not only Humanity but all other species that are part of the Interspecies Union from the threat of total annihilation? And which are the greater threat – the Dhryn or the Ro? Will politics, however well intended, conspire to the end of life in space?

This concluding part is in perfect harmony with the tone of the story leading up to it. Well conceived and executed the ending part of the trilogy is as much about finding a way to handle the threat to interplanetary survival as it is about how the species imperative works on humans, namely Dr. Connor and Agent Trojanowski, both in their relationship to each other and in how they handle a threat to their home world, and this is part of what makes this trilogy worth reading – grand theme, grand setting and repercussions on a personal level makes the reader care for the characters.

I highly recommend the Species Imperative trilogy, starting with Survival.
Well worth the time it takes reading the approximately 1500 pages.

Review: Migration, by Julie E Czerneda

After having identified what threatens the lifeforms of the Interspecies Union biologist Dr. Mackenzie Connor returns to her life as a salmon researcher. The return proves difficult, though. Meeting the alien has not only provided a larger frame of reference but has also resulted in vivid flashback nightmares and a feeling of inadequacy – she is worried that the people responsible for handling the threat are looking in the wrong direction, she also worries about her vanished colleague, Dr. Emily Mamani, but she is forbidden by the Ministry of Extra-Solar Affairs to reveal anything to anyone about the true reasons for her absence from work.

Unbeknownst to her others wants access to her and her insights and she ends up being part of a multi-species effort to find a way to tackle the combined Dhryn/Ro threat to life. This proves a challenge, as the team assigned to her is suspicious of her motives.

The characters are both fun and profound, most of them with his, her, its or their own motivations and quirks and the story itself a well paced and balanced mix between action and reflection.

While part 1 (Survival) can stand on it’s own Migration is very much dependent on it’s successor (Regeneration) to provide an ending. This is, however, not a problem, because the tale holds the reader in constant suspense, making it imperative ;-) to have the concluding part near at hand when finishing Migration.

I highly recommend the Species Imperative trilogy. Start with the first book, though, if you want to get things right.

Review: Survival, by Julie E Czerneda

Dr. Mackenzie Connor, Mac to those who know her, is a prime example of the mono-focused human; interested only in what can be related to her research, not having what other people chose to call ‘a normal life’; something which seems to be a conscious choice made so long ago it has become part of herself. The only person to come close to her is Emily, another scientist, and together they study salmon. Then one day a scientist from not only another world and of another species but another field altogether, chaperoned by what seemingly is a harmless papershuffler, a bureaucrat, intrudes on her in her field work, claiming Mac could hold the key to the survival of several species.

I have not read enough by Czerneda to know if this is a recurring theme but the story is not far away from that of In the Company of Others (my ‘review’ here) – alien species threatening the survival of the known world, female scientist solves the mystery while falling in love on the way. It’s a fun ride though so I can’t complain.

The characters are nicely done and the story is mostly well paced and despite a vague feeling of being a brew consisting of lots of well known elements Czerneda manages to make this dish have it’s own personal flavour.
If I had a problem with anything it was the frequent infodumps, especially at the beginning of the story. The style is supposed to be tight third person, which means we can only know what the protagonist know. But every now and then things she obviously know well enough not to react to are explained to us. An example: To Mac the tech called ‘imps’ should be ubiquitous – their use should be made clear to us by showing her using them. Instead we get a paragraph (or was it two?) describing the etymology behind the word, and what the thing is used for.
These dumps were not frequent enough to do more than annoy me slightly, though.

The book is first in a series of three called The Species Imperative but the essential parts of the story gets their resolution before the last page. Despite this I am ready to devour the next one (Migration), had I had it in my hand. Not because of any loose threads but because I want to know what will happen next – I’m not ready to abandon the scientifically minded Mac just yet.

Recommended.

Review: The Talking Ape – How Language Evolved, by Robbins Burling

What is language? And how came it to be what it is? Language is so central to us as as human beings that most of us never even stop to wonder how it came to be that way. True, linguists works hard to dismantle language, to isolate the parts and to put labels on those parts, working away like physicists trying to find the smallest possible building blocks of the known universe and beyond. But the question of how language came to be have largely been left untouched, largely because spoken language do not leave archaeological finds as a physical track so whatever theory have been issued it have been founded largely on guesswork and wishful thinking.

In The Talking Ape linguist and anthropologist Robbins Burling tries not to dismantle language but to look at language and in a bid to understand how it evolved. He piece by piece pick apart prevailing ideas about the origins of language, scrutinizing them for contents and useful bits and then present the idea that language, while the common theory has been we evolved it because it gave us an upper hand in doing things like hunting, is that it has facilitated social interaction and that social interaction, planning and learning is what has set us apart form other animals.
The topic touches at a lot of sensitive and uncharted areas, like that of consciousness, and Burling is careful to underline that what he poses is a hypothesis, nothing more, but at the same time at least I think at the core looking at language and ask “why did it evolve, why did people who had language win the race for prevalence” is a sound method.

While me makes a good case against creationist linguistics (we woke up one morning and behold, there was language in our heads!) I do think he misses the impact culture and economics has had on humans and therefore on our language. Yes, we need language to sustain a city-dwelling society, but why came cities to be? The author is an anthropologist, and as such refers to his own field studies in agrarian communities. Based on is own observations and present knowledge of how human civilisation has evolved his theories are valid, but they fall somewhat short when he lacks them means to validate them against a city culture. Not that they would not hold together (a double negation! what a sacrilege!) but with the holistic take he has chosen this lack shows clearly.

Never the less I think this book is very much worth the effort and I recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.

The book has also been reviewed on the blog Popular Science.

My spider, on top of evolution

In my kitchen a window is set aside for fresh herbs. During winter most of them dies – it’s simply too cold and too dark for them, and they wilt to death. The sage usually survives. It’s sturdy. Since some months back a small spider lives in the sage plant. Of course this means I cannot use the sage, but it doesn’t matter. While I like the spice right now it’s more relevant as the habitat for another living thing.

I have not tried to classify the spider. It’s maybe 5 millimetres long, and in it’s usual position it’s maybe 2 millimetres across. It resembles a wilted leave, or a fragment of wilted grass. It’s so small and so unassuming – well camouflaged! – that I’ve had no luck getting it to show on a photograph.

This is part of why I keep it. I’m fascinated by nature and how evolution works to promote creatures like this. I have no idea how it survives. The kitchen is notoriously bereft of flies and other small insects that would be in it’s range, and I have trashed it’s net at times. But it keeps turning up, again and again and again. In a way it’s very human – resilient bordering on obnoxious.

A reminder of the superficiality of humans and human motives, maybe.