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”…

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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!

Heard: The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

As a rule I don’t mention what I listen to, and a large part of that is down to the fact that I mainly listen to The Great Courses’ lecture series: not much to say to that.  I listen to them while I walk to and from work, or when I go somewhere alone, and so they take a great long time to finish.

This time after finishing a lecture series I decided to listen to some fiction, though, and the choice fell on Scalzi’s short story The Dispatcher. It had been sitting on my Audible account for some while, and it was encouragingly short – only two hours and 20 minutes long.

The Dispatcher is told in first person, and it soon becomes obvious that it is a dispatcher telling his story, as he saw it when it happened. Beyond the basic premise – that one day people who got murdered returned to life, popping up again stark naked in another place, most often their home – it is not so much science fiction as it is a mystery. It takes place against a Chicago backdrop, were a dispatcher, James Albert, has been reported missing. The detective on the case, Nona Langdon, recruits our storyteller Tony Valdez, dispatcher and colleague of Albert to the investigation. Together they unravel what turns out to be an inventive way of revenge murder, meanwhile showing the reader what a world in which people only stay dead if they suicide would look like.

The story was witty, funny, and well paced. No doubt Zachary Quinto’s performance of it contributed to the over all impression – job well done!

I will definitely listen to The Dispatcher again if I find myself in need of good fun entertainment during for example a flight.

Highly recommended.

Read: Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

Starting veeery slow the story took not off, for me at least, until the last third of the book. That is a bit beyond my normal patience, but I usually end up liking McDonald’s stories. And so I persevered.

In a not too distant future human society on Earth has partly caved in as robotization has thrown the middle classes into poverty. Those who dare or those who are desperate enough seek their luck on the new frontier – the Moon, and its promise of wealth, or at least a fast death if bad luck strikes. Up there corporations the like of robber barons with dynastic pretentions rule absolutely, and everything has a price on it, and McDonald writes it like a mash between the fall of the Soviet Union and the grimmest of medieval times: the only currency is money, and without it you’ll have no air to breath. Your oxygen quota is directly linked to your bank account.

In this environment we follow one of the big Dragons, ie one of the big corporations that dominates lunar life, down a path of feuding and serial revenge that goes beyond family interests and into economic dominance and hunt for monopoly.

As already stated getting into the story took some, and it wasn’t until the very last 50 or so pages that I decided that I’m not only going to finish this book – I am also going to get the next one in the series a try.

This might not look like a flying endorsement, and it isn’t. To get into the book one needs to learn about a lot about the different families that rule the Moon; take in lots of borrowed and adapted language that includes loans from Ghana, Korea, China, and Brasil; understand power structures and social customs; and a few more things. This is hard work, initially. I do think that it pays off, eventually, though. But I understand if this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I would not recommend Luna: New Moon as a first taste of science fiction, or even as a first taste of Ian McDonald – to me, River of Gods is still the best book of his that I’ve read.

Read: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

Exit Strategy is the final segment of the very enjoyable four-part story that together is labelled the Murderbot Diaries. Would Dr Mensah welcome Murderbot back, despite the way its quest for truth had complicated the situation for the Preservation Aux scientists? Would Murderbot conquer the final assault launched against it, the at the same time both most up-front and most devious attack this far? How far is GrayCris corporation willing to go to keep the investigation into its very shady business, and will the way the Corporate Rim work protect the powerful corporation against the law?

Truthfully, these are not the real questions. This far the story has been, despite the blood, murder and atrocities going on, at heart very easy-going. To not end well would be to break character.

The real question might instead be – how on Earth an space does Martha Wells manage to present this feel-good and thus ultimately predictable story in such a way that the reader experience it as something engaging and exhilarating.

Part about it is probably due to the break-neck no-nonsense speed of the story. But at the very centre is our protagonist and guide – the inimitable, down to earth, honest and very humane vulnerability of Murderbot itself. It struggles with whom it might be, or not be, and what can be expected of it. It both like humans and want to help them, and dislike them; doesn’t want to interact, doesn’t want to engage… and still do.

I think a lot of us can identify with that balance act, but without having the excuse of not actually being human – only feeling like we’re not.

As could be expected all ends well, but on a note were we feel like we’ve been party to a prelude, a start: that while we now  leave Murderbot to its’ own devices for itself life is just beginning.

Highly recommended reading, despite the fact that the story is split in four short and rather expensive volumes.

Read: Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells

Rogue Protocol starts as a Murderbot book can be expected: with Murderbot in transit to yet one more point in space, having to wrangle yet more humans who it both dislike, pity, and gets attached to; all told with the special mix of self-effacement, introspection and ease that signifies this series.

As Murderbot learns more and more about itself, the lesser the degree of self-doubt, though, more and more gaining  it’s own agency. With more agency comes less introspection and self-doubt, less search for identity and more self-appointed fact-finding mission to save the face of the first human that showed Murderbot compassion.

But also a suggestion of more and more “human” qualities, more vulnerable, perhaps, to it’s own whims and judgements?

When the book ends Murderbot is on its way back to Dr Mensah. Will it reach her? How much action and how many explosions will occur along the way? Will the final rendez-vous meet up to Murderbot’s expectation, or has it’s quest been in vain? Will it even take place?

I need to get my hands on the next instalment!

Read: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

All Systems Red lets us, the readers, listen in on the thoughts of a construct – a mechanical being with biological parts – as it struggles with its identity, self-determination, and relationship to humans.

The construct is nameless and genderless, explicitly so, but based on a previous incident it calls itself Murderbot; we’re listening in on the diary of Murderbot, SecUnit for hire.

As we first meet SecUnit it is attached to a small survey mission on a faraway planet, somewhere in the universe. SecUnit doesn’t particularly care, and carries out its tasks with bland indifference. It just wants to be left alone, so it can watch the latest episode of some soap opera. Then things happen, as they do in a story, kicking Murderbot off on a journey of self-discovery.

Murderbot has a very distinct voice – dry, funny, and so very human. I found it easy to relate to its struggle to fit in, and its constant feeling of being inept at the tasks set before it. It just want to live it’s life in peace, away from everything that complicates existence, but try to wrangle each situation as it is presented before it to its best ability. Much like any sentient being, really.

The story as such is not revolutionary. Science fiction is full of characters battling with what it means to be human, or what it means to have self-determination, not to mention an unique identity in an alien world. But it is told with such wit, such humour, and with such a spring in it’s step that you get sucked in into the story.

Highly recommended.