Review: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

7886338Title: The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Author: Ted Chiang

Rating: 3 star

Publisher:Subterranean Press (available free online)

Format: Electronic

Review:

Are you familiar with the Turing Test? Alan Turing posed a question in the 1950’s, pondering whether or not machines could think. To answer that question, he devised a test where a human judge would interrogate both man and machine and receive written answers to his questions. If the judge is unable to tell the man from the machine, the machine has passed the test.

The Turing test is one of the primary themes of The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Chiang’s title, in programming jargon, speaks to the typical process a piece of software goes through. When software is designed, it typically goes through alpha and beta testing, is released to the general public, goes through a series of updates, and eventually reaches a point where it is no longer sold or supported. This does not mean it dies — users may continue to run the software as long as it is useful.

This is the case with Chiang’s protagonists. Ana Alvarado, a zoologist, is hired by a company to train digients. In an artificial world, (a glamorized version of Second Life) a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence known as digients have been created to serve as virtual pets. They are sentient software beings and Ana begins to train them as they progress in human speech and self awareness. She grows fond of the pets and as their life cycle runs out, she and a coworker named Derek continue to care for a few of these pets when technology has surpassed them.

To describe the plot any further is to do this novella injustice. It is not a plot-driven story. In fact, it is not a character-driven story either. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a high-concept novella, exploring the themes of artificial intelligence and what designates a person (natural or artificial) worthy of rights. Chiang’s examination of the software objects parallel many moral dilemmas that face humanity — AI software copying (cloning), AI virtual sex (prostitution), and virtual violence (poignant to today’s blood-thirsty culture portrayed in television and video games).

I have read all but one of Ted Chiang’s short stories and this is his longest (~30k words), but also his most disappointing. Chiang’s prose and structure approaches the greatness of Gene Wolfe at times, but in this novella it falls flat. I am sure this is intentional — the short sentences and simplistic style is reminiscent of the languages of programming, toddler-speak, and the texting age. But even putting aside my stylistic quibbles, the protagonists came across as rather uninteresting. At one point, Ana gets married, to the devastation of Derek who had been pining after her, despite the fact that he himself was married. We learn next to nothing about their spouses or really anything about them outside of their relationships with their virtual pets. Removing this context leaves the characters somewhat one-dimensional, merely there to drive the story forward.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is told in a series of vignettes. The short narratives walk us through the various stages that the digients go through. The shifts forward through time are somewhat jarring and the need to invent new software terms with each new generation made it feel at times I was reading a software manual.

Bear in mind, my negative comments are made in reaction to the extremely high bar I hold for Ted Chiang. He is one of the most talented short story authors in genre fiction today and his writing is always purposeful and cerebral. There are many what if scenarios that play out over the course of the novella that left me contemplating the nature of artificial intelligence and how humanity would react to having such technology. In answering these thoughts, Chiang has succeeded on a high level.

I would call the experience of reading The Lifecycle of Software Objects akin to reading Issac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. It is ripe with philosophy and science fiction that will appeal to the hearts of Asimov fans. For those looking for the rich prose and the elegant stories that I have grown accustomed to with Chiang, I would recommend stories such as Story of Your Life, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, or Exhalation.

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Review of Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

13573427Title: Star Wars: Scoundrels

Author: Timothy Zahn

Rating: 3 star

Publisher: LucasBooks

Format: Hardcover

Review:

Let’s start at the beginning — the very beginning. You can’t help but love the cover of Scoundrels. A police lineup shows Chewie, Han, and Lando wonderfully rendered, bringing back the nostalgia of the original trilogy. But a simple heist with this trio would be much too simple and turning the cover to the back shows that Han has a much bigger plan in mind.

scoundrels_cover

I will refrain from making an obvious movie connection with the premise of this novel. Yes, it is true that Han is leading the ultimate heist to steal “cash” out of a vault. And yes, his crew does consist of eleven people. And once again, yes — each of these “scoundrels” has a unique and special ability that is required by Han to pull off this elaborate plan so he can finally pay back Jabba.

When I first saw the title, Scoundrels, I expected a few things. First, I expected to see the shady side of Han — the smuggling rebel who would talk back to a princess in order to get his reward. I also expected to see some camaraderie with his faithful wookie. As for Lando, I wasn’t sure he fit correctly into the continuity as I had always assumed the stunt Han pulled against him was stealing the Millennium Falcon. This book tells us otherwise.

I won’t go into details of the plot, but let’s just say that Han comes across an opportunity to break into the Black Sun crime sindicate to steal back what amounts to a fortune of credits. He reluctantly accepts this challenge and enlists a host of smugglers to accomplish the task. Several obstacles and missteps threaten to foil Han’s plans and what seems to be a typical caper ends with a twist that I never expected.

What frustrated me from the beginning of the novel was the effort in making Han to be such a good guy. I absolutely loved A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, which told of his hard upbringing, giving us insight into his reluctance to getting in relationships and his strong connection with Chewie. In Scoundrels, Zahn goes to extremes to make Han a benevolent hero. When a bounty hunter comes to collect, Han shoots him with his familiar gun-under-the-table, but it is immediately justified by saying that the bounty hunter shot first. As for the fortune they are stealing, once again we are given a long explanation about how this is stolen money and Han needs to help return it to its faithful owner with the promise of a hero’s portion.

I appreciate that Han has a good heart, but part of the appeal of Han is that he doesn’t fit the typical Star Wars archetype of being wholly good or wholly evil. He’s a smuggler who’s out for himself, but also has a soft side.

Zahn is a talented writer and perhaps I am being a little harsh in my review (but given the many good reviews, I give myself liberty in sharing my qualms). For the most part, the novel is light-hearted and fun, filled with dialog and twists and turns that keep the action going. There are no Jedi or Sith Lords, which I appreciated and thought would distract from the point of the novel. I would have liked for more interaction between Han and Chewie, but overall Zahn handled the interactions between the many characters well.

The plot of the novel was well thought-out and creative, but I wasn’t as inspired by the story as I had hoped. At times it got bogged down with excessive dialog between characters that were essentially just filling a role in the heist without being particularly interesting. This wasn’t due to a fault in the writing. That is far from the truth. It’s just that adding character depth to a team of eleven is difficult with the limited amount of space to work with within a novel.

For Star Wars fans, particularly those wanting to fill in some empty pieces of the original trilogy, I think you may find this read a delight. Expect some action, some humorous and sarcastic banter from Han, and a few plot twists. For me, it was a decent read that was worth my time, but it doesn’t rise to the level of A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy. Nonetheless, I appreciate Zahn’s approach and it does add a little depth to explain Han and Lando’s troubled relationship in The Empire Strikes Back.

Review of Star Wars: The Last Command by Timothy Zahn

216422Title: Star Wars: The Last Command

Author: Timothy Zahn

Rating: 3 star

Publisher: Spectra

Format: Paperback

Review:

It’s always interesting to read a novel (or in this case, a series) for the second time. I was but a wee lad when it first came out — a middle schooler who had recently ventured into the world of adult novels, reading the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Star Wars, with a much greater sense of innocence, was still appealing with its heroism and magic of the force.

After reviewing the first novel, I was almost disappointed that I decided to reread the series. My review of the second novel was better, with Dark Force Rising displaying better character development and action. So here I am, reviewing the third and final novel in the series, The Last Command.

I’d love to write a glowing review. I’d love to say that it brought back the nostalgic fascination I once had with the series as it expanded the original Star Wars trilogy into the future. But the truth is that the trilogy’s impact on me seems to have lost some luster. In the third novel, Grand Admiral Thrawn is planning a large attack on the rebels. He has amassed a collection of ships and has a secret cloning lab where he plans to gain the manpower to rule the galaxy.

Leia gives birth to her twins and finds that they are even more difficult to protect outside of her womb. She has to trust her help in keeping them safe, but she learns that there is a leak from within the ranks of the rebel alliance.

Mara Jade still remains bipolar, desiring to assist the rebels against the overly-oppressive Empire; however, the remnant command of the Emperor still speaks to her: “Kill Luke Skywalker.”

Joruus C’Boath becomes crazier than ever, with grandiose visions of ruling the Empire with Luke, Leia, Mara, and the twins serving him. Thrawn puts up with him, claiming to need him for one purpose or another, but really C’Boath is mostly a nuisance.

Luke, Han, and Lando make frequent appearances, but by the third novel, they are ancillary characters, experiencing very little change or actions to drive the plot forward.

So all of this brings me to my review and I am trying to resist from saying such cliches as some stones are better left unturned. With the improvements of the second novel over the first, I had hopes that the third novel would continue the pace. But where the second novel improved, the third novel digressed. Luke’s internal conflicts with the dark side are now gone and he sees C’Boath for who he really is — an evil, psychopathic dark Jedi (which should have been obvious in the first place). Mara Jade’s character, who seemed so complex in my early memories, actually comes across as equally naive. Her actions and thoughts are all sympathetic to the rebels, yet she clings to this vestige command to kill Luke and is haphazard as she mentions it in conversation.

And then there’s Thrawn. A supposedly mastermind supervillain who continues to put up with C’Boath and the incompetence of his underlings with patience and fortitude. There were moments in the first and second novels where he lived up to his hype, but once again, this was lost in the third novel. I guess I was hoping for a more courageous and evil antagonist — one who would deal severe consequences for incompetence and would aggressively dole out his strength against the rebels.

As I paced my way through the novel, there were moments that I thought were clever. I really liked the manner in which Mara Jade overcame her duality of emotions toward Luke at the end. Also, the smugglers banding together against the Empire, while remaining somewhat neutral, seemed realistic to me.

Overall, the series was a decent read, but it’s magic resides back in my youth, before the expanded universe had reached its breadth. The pacing is quick and the ending, unfortunately is abrupt and anticlimactic. For Star Wars fans, this series is of course a must read. On it’s own, it just doesn’t hold up to today’s standards.

Review: Feed by Mira Grant

feedTitle: Feed

Author: Mira Grant

Rating: 3 star

Publisher: Orbit

Format: Paperback

It’s been twenty years since the Rising — a zombie-apocalypse resulting from a virus that was meant to cure illnesses. But the pandemic hasn’t overtaken all of humanity and the human-zombie population has approached an equilibrium.

In this dangerous world are two siblings, Georgia and Shaun Mason, who have pursued blogging as a career. Like Hunter S. Thompson, they are gonzo journalists, on the road reporting news. Making news.

After Georgia, Shaun, and their friend Buffy land a job to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Peter Ryman, they find themselves in the middle of a vast political conspiracy that threatens to change the whole political landscape of what is now America.

For those who are uncertain, Feed is not a horror novel. In fact, much of the novel is slow-paced, serving more as a satire and political thriller in a dystopian setting. Mira Grant has created a believable relationship between the two siblings and throughout the narrative we read the very different blog entries the two have created. Shaun is a risk-taker, often purposely devoid of protective clothing in the midst of a crowd of zombies. Georgia reports straight news with her own liberal politics bleeding through her posts.

It may seem ironic that she is covering a Republican candidate in Senator Ryman, but he is more of a moderate compared to his VP candidate, Tate. In fact it is this political bias that in many respects gives away too much of the novel. Issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are brought up and are used to blame right-wing politics as more of the reason for the degenerated society than the zombie infestation.

While a novel like this should not be without political opinion (for example, I love George Orwell’s 1984), I found it off-putting the way religious fundamentalism and conservatism was portrayed. It completely misses the worldview many in this group adhere to, dumbing them down to mindless, religious zealots. In fairness, this is similar to the reaction I had after reading Dan Simmon’s right-wing leaning, Flashback. Ultimately, the black-and-white portrayals leave many of the characters paper-thin, much like the megalomaniac enemies we find in James Bond films.

What Mira Grant did well is forming real relationships with the characters and more importantly, giving real consequences for their risks and actions. There is a lot of emotion and empathy the reader gains for the characters. The first couple hundred of pages move along quite slowly, exploring the possible political and social scenarios that would accompany a zombie-infested America, but the narrative picks up in the second half of the novel.

Feed is a novel that was good, but not great. The writing is sufficient and the premise of the story is different than most of the other zombie novels and movies out there. If you are looking for an action-packed horror novel, stay clear. If you are looking for a cerebral dystopian novel with emotional bonds between characters, this may be the book for you. I was glad I read it, but am not rushing to the bookstore to pick up the next novel.

Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Title: 1Q84

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: 

Publisher: Knopf

Format: Audio

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, he imagines a dystopian future where man is ruled by a totalitarian state. Murakami’s vision does not take us to the future, but to a parallel world, where many things remain the same, but some things are strikingly different.

Aomame is traveling in Tokyo when the stopped traffic leads her to abandon her taxi and exit the freeway by foot. Traveling down a set of emergency stairs, she enters the world 1Q84. It is like Tokyo in 1984, but this world has two moons and some other odd peculiarities. Not knowing what else to call this somewhat strange world, she names it 1Q84 — Q meaning question.

Also drawn into this world is Tengo, a ghostwriter for a teenage girl who enters a story into a literary contest. The story is good,  but needs the workmanship of a professional writer to make it a real best seller. What Tengo doesn’t know is that the novel is a real depiction of the world 1Q84 and a religious cult tied to some supernatural forces plan to deal with him.

1Q84 is about Aomame and Tengo navigating the strange world. They shared an innocent romance in grade school which is rekindled in this new world and they seek to find each other. Aomame’s path crosses a dowager, who solicits her to covertly assassinate abusive men that the law fails to punish. But the biggest target of all is tied to the religious cult and she and Tengo soon find themselves fleeing for their lives.

I have very mixed feelings about this novel. On one hand, the world Murakami developed is imaginative and many of the characters are complex and rich. I’ve only read one previous title by Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles), but I am noticing a pattern in his male protagonists. They seem somewhat autobiographical, defying the cultural expectations for Japanese manhood. They have emotions and fancy artistic pursuits. Having failed to ascend some sort of corporate ladder, they are either jobless or indulge in a career that lacks prestige.

In Tengo’s case, he is a writer. Even though he hasn’t seen Aomame in twenty years, he pines for her, clinging to a memory of holding her hand. His affections now are much less innocent and the entire novel revolves around sex. Yes, the entire novel. The novel is not pornographic in the sense that the sex is glamorized, but it is explicit in a matter-of-fact manner. I suspect there is no other novel that uses the term flaccid or pubic more than this novel.

The tome spans more than 900 pages (or in my case, over 46 hours) and the plot and narrative really did not support its length. Many scenes are repeated two, three, even more times. The scene takes place and then the character recalls the scene, sometimes with rote detail, and it is reiterated to the reader. Half-way through the novel, I was ready to give up, but trudged on, desiring to know the fate of Aomame and Tengo.

So therein highlights the strength of the novel. Murakami is great at creating memorable characters — ones that the reader truly cares about. I never knew how the novel would end. Would Aomame and Tengo unite? Would one or both die at the hands of the religious cult? Would they forever be trapped in 1Q84?

I don’t want to deter anyone from reading this book. The characters and world are fascinating and the plot itself is interesting as well. The reader just needs to be prepared to suffer through explicit details about genitalia (you know, in an unerotic sort of way) and a narrative that is quite repetitive. For those who haven’t read Murakami, this is not the place to start.

Review: Flashback by Dan Simmons

Title: Flashback

Author: Dan Simmons

Rating: 

Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books

Format: Hardcover

I usually try and refrain from talking politics on this blog. I have not amassed a large readership that I fear of alienating, nor am I selling any kind of product that I fear will suffer from making political statements. Essentially, I just don’t have the desire to turn this blog into a political mouthpiece. But after reading the novel, Flashback, I fear it is impossible to avoid the subject.

At first glance, Flashback appears to be a typical dystopian novel. I thought it at first seemed inspired by a hallucinatory narcotic novel by Philip K Dick or perhaps paying (self-acknowledged) debt to Robert J. Sawyer’s Flash Forward. Perhaps there is some inspiration from past writers, but the novel serves an entirely different purpose.

Set twenty-something years in the future, a struggling society finds solace in a drug called flashback. The drug allows a person to vividly relive past experiences. Ultimately, the drug brings out the worst in people and women are raped to lock in a memory that can be recalled hundreds of times over.

The protagonist, Nick Bottom, is a detective who falls into the allure of flashback after his wife is killed. His life and career fall into shambles, he becomes alienated from his son, and he spends all of his remaining resources on reliving time with his wife. There appears to be no end in sight to Nick’s destruction until an allucrative businessman from Japan hires him to solve a murder of who killed his son.

Nick, who is out of money (and thus, out of flashback), takes the case and soon finds himself wound up in a huge conspiracty. His path intertwines with ihis son, who remorsefully is connected with a gang of teenagers who are bent on murder and rape to gain memories to relive. Nick must overcome his drug addiction to save his son from an untimely death and ultimately save himself.

I will mention that I love the idea for the plot. I also love Dan Simmons writing and I thought his Hyperion Cantos was absolutely brilliant. He really is my kind of writer — out of the box science fiction with a literary flair. And while I enjoyed reading this novel as well, I just couldn’t get over the obtuseness of the politics involved.

The dystopia that Simmons pictures has the Islamic Caliphate ruling all of Europe. Several states of the US have seceded and most of those remaining do not pay taxes. And it’s all Obama’s fault. Simmons refers to Obama’s foreign policy as being one of “appeasement” that began with a speech given in Egypt and perpetuated into global destruction. This theme runs throughout the course of the novel, wearing the reader down with what really is a hyperbolic extension of liberal politics.

In many ways, I align myself with conservative/libertarian school of politics, but I found Simmons vision to be an untruthful exaggeration. Yes, this is fiction, but real examples are given of what brings about America and Europe’s collapse. It seems that perhaps Simmons himself was on flashback, reliving Bush-era military adventurism while writing this novel.

Politics aside, the novel is interesting and Simmons does an excellent job of tying the characters together. In traditional Simmons style, there are references to Shakespeare and other literary figures, giving the novel its unique fingerprint. The characters and plot never rose to the grand scale of Hyperion and I felt at times that Simmons’ dialog seemed a bit artificial in trying to pull off the grittiness of the future. Nick Bottom, while somewhat a loser, is still a character we can feel empathy toward as he attempts to make up for lost time.

I did enjoy reading the novel and for those who can look past the politics, it is a joy to read. If you are new to Simmons, there are better choices of novels, but Flashback still delivers an entertaining read.

Review: 14 by Peter Clines

Title: 14

Author: Peter Clines

Narrator: Ray Porter

Rating: 

Publisher: Permuted Press/Audible Frontiers

Format: Audio (purchased from audible.com)

Review:

It’s ironic that the blurb on the cover draws comparison between 14 and the TV show Lost. I hadn’t noticed the blurb when I first listened to the book, but had already wanted to draw a similar comparison, but probably for a different reason.

Lost begins with a plane crashing onto a mysterious island. The individuals who survive the crash don’t know one another, but they band together as they encounter a series of strange occurrences. There are several clues given to the TV viewer as to the nature of the island, but by the third season, I began to fear that most of these clues were nothing but red herrings. Over the next few seasons there were a few interesting character conflicts and moments of tense action, but largely I found myself growing impatient. Many fans suspected the island to be a form of purgatory and the show became a waiting game for the payoff at the end.

14  begins with a man named Nate Tucker moving into a low-rent apartment. He immediately notices some peculiarities including some glowing roaches creeping through his unit with an odd number of legs and a light fixture that makes every light bulb a black light. Nate ends up befriending his neighbors and learns that they too have their own unique oddities. The tenants band together to discover the source of the strange events in their apartment. Soon they discover that some stones are better left unturned.

Seeing the glowing reviews for 14 puts my response to the novel in the minority. One review on Amazon called it the most enjoyable science fiction novel aside from Asimov’s Foundation series and others declare it just plain frickin’ awesome. On a positive note, the novel had an interesting premise and I liked the blend of horror and mystery. The characters, however, were quite flat. They were extremely sociable with one another, but seemingly lacked much of a social life on their own. There are equal numbers of single men and women in the novel and the casual hook-ups that seem to lack credibility.

Clines’ writing is effective in carrying the story along, not lyrical in its presentation, but descriptive nonetheless. There is a lot of dialog in the story, which really speeds the pacing up, compensating for parts of the story that seemed to lag. The audio version was narrated by Ray Porter, who spoke with good characterization and emotion, but his accents were a little ambiguous.

I think my biggest problem with the novel was that I essentially figured out the premise of the novel a quarter of the way through and like Lost, the entire middle portion of the story had me waiting for the characters to catch up. I had no emotional involvement with the romance that develops between Nate and Veek and the self-referencing Scooby-Doo method of crime solving left me wanting. Clines threw in a few subtle pop-culture references that helped keep a minor interest, but generally speaking, the story left me lukewarm.

I don’t think I can recommend this book (unless you are someone who actually thinks the show Lost had a brilliant ending). It’s not that it’s bad — it’s not by any measure — but it didn’t inspire me on frankly any level. If you are looking for an easy horror read with Lovecraftian influences, perhaps this is for you. Judging by the amount of positive reviews, this is a novel that struck a chord with many readers. Unfortunately I was not one of them.

Review of Fables: Storybook Love (Vol. 3)

Title: Fables: Storybook Love (Vol. 3)

Author: Bill Willingham

Illustrators: Mark Buckingham (penciller), Steve Leialoha (inker), Linda Medley (artist)

Rating: 

Publisher: Vertigo

Review:

The third trade paperback volume of Fables collects issues 11-18 of the comic book series. Within are four separate story arcs: Bag O’ Bones, A two-part caper, Storybook Love (the feature story), and Barleycorn Brides.

Bag O’ Bones tells a Civil War era story of Jack Horner. who lies to be granted an early muster from the war when it was evident the South would lose. On his journey through the bayou, he comes across a rugged-looking man who wants to play poker with him. After Jack loses his shirt (literally) against who he believes to be the devil, they play one final hand for Jack’s soul. Jack cheats his way to win and obtains a magic bag. Knowing Jack, this just leads to more trouble.

This one-issue story was a delight to read. Jack is not my favorite character, but this tale is pure escapist fun. It is cleverly written and Jack’s encounter with the Grim Reaper was morbidly humorous.

The two-part caper (“A Sharp Operation” and “Dirty Business”) concerns the story of a mundy (a mundane human) reporter who is about to unveil a massive story about the fables living in New York. Worse yet, he has pictures to prove their immortality. Bluebeard wants to kill the guy, while Bigby has a more civil and tactful approach to handling the reporter. An elaborate caper is developed where Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) puts the reporter’s apartment building to sleep and the rest of the Fables move in to carry on their plot.

This story features most of the main players, including Flycatcher (the Frog Prince), a scruffy, fly-breathed prince who must come to the rescue when Prince Charming cannot. This particular story arc was interesting, but is more of a setup for the feature story, Storybook Love.

Storybook Love tells of the romantic connection between Bluebeard and Goldilocks, which is discovered by a toy soldier and his trusted mouse. News of their shacking up together reaches the rest of Fabletown and Bluebeard attempts to head the investigation off by applying a magic potion that makes Snow and Bigby abruptly decide to take a vacation together in the middle of the woods. Here, the guerrilla leader, Goldilocks is waiting to finish them off. Can Prince Charming, who has begun to amend his womanizing ways, help save Fabletown in their stead?

This story was very enjoyable and it has many consequences that change the lives of the fables in the end. Snow and Bigby develop a romantic relationship, which has a curious twist in the end. We also learn that popular fables die hard and defeating Goldilocks is not an easy task, even with the strength of Bigby Wolf (in his beastly form). It was really cool to watch Snow mount her trusted lupine friend and run for shelter.

The final story, Barleycorn Brides, was the weakest of the bunch. Bigby Wolf tells Flycatcher a story of the Lilliputians and their quest to find brides in a male-only town. The story itself is a diversion from the overall story arc and the artwork, while similar in style to Buckingham and Leialoha, is as inspiring as a coloring book. That’s not to say that the characters were badly drawn, but their faces are simple with canned expressions. I think this volume would have been much better leaving this story out. Or perhaps it would have been better served as a story in 1001 Nights of Snowfall.

Overall, the stories in this collection were good, but fell a little short of the previous two volumes. Prince Charming’s abrupt change in character was not believable and makes him much less interesting than in the first volume. Perhaps there’s a nihilistic tendency I have as a reader to wish for him to be a destructive antihero, but alas, he saves the day by foiling (no pun intended) Bluebeard in a sword fight. Or maybe I am being a little harsh on the volume, for the Fables series is truly one of the most enjoyable comic series out there today.

Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Title: Blackbirds

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook

Review:

Take a broken, drifting female protagonist — a bit misguided, but tough as nails. Maybe you compare her to Lisbeth Salander (you know, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), but instead of having a hacker-level of tech savviness, she has an ability much like Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone — she can foresee the cause and time of death of everyone she encounters. Throw in some punk frat boys, a gentle giant trucker, a con man and some of the vilest, sadistic people you have ever come across and you have the cast of Blackbirds.

Before I give my thoughts on the book, I think it is necessary that I give a bit of a warning. This book is crass. I’m not talking about several four-letter words being used here and there. This book taught me words that I would have been much happier never knowing the definition (e.g. blumpy). The experiencing of reading Blackbirds is akin to watching the torture porn as seen in the Saw franchise. My comment is more of a warning than a judgment, so let’s begin the review.

Miriam Black is a twenty-something woman with the unique ability to see how and when a person dies whenever she comes into contact with them. Because of past events, she sees this as more of a curse than a blessing. We don’t really come to terms with how she gained this ability, but we learn that it isn’t something she was born with.

She is somewhat of an antihero throughout the first half of the novel. She wanders somewhat aimlessly, stealing money from people whose death she foresaw in previous encounters. When a large, benevolent trucker helps her out during an altercation along the roadside, she is changed. She sees that she is responsible for his death and makes it her personal mission to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

Chuck Wendig’s talent in this novel lies mainly in the narrative voice. The novel is primarily (though not exclusively) told through Miriam’s viewpoint. Her vile thoughts are almost masculine in nature, often drifting to excrement and genitalia, but she is spunky and resourceful — someone the reader can cheer for. There is a trend in fiction for gritty characters and Miriam epitomizes this character trait. She’s cynical and filled with angst, but inside there is a dim light that wants to overcome her internal darkness.

Much of the novel deals with Miriam’s interactions with the various people she meets. We are told the death stories of dozens of characters (some of which leave little to the imagination) and each of these encounters has a burdening effect on Miriam. She grows distant, accepting fate for what it appears to be.

Blackbirds is not the first novel to tackle fate versus free-will, but to be honest, I really don’t tire of the subject. The whole novel hinges on her ability to change the future, which experience has taught her is an impossible task. She has already come to terms with this fact, which makes her keep her distance from others — not wanting to be the cause of anyone’s death (our first glimpse of good in her).

The pacing is quick and the novel is short, making it quite easy for me to finish it in a day. The book is much like what you’d find in an old Stephen King novel, which for me brings back many memories. I enjoyed reading the story, cringed in several places and the ending left me somewhat satisfied. Aside from the vulgarity, I would not call Blackbirds a particularly memorable read, but it was a good book to pick up after making my way through some 600-page marathons as of late. For those who want to read a dark, gritty supernatural thriller (and have the stomach for the vile), Blackbirds is a fast and exciting read.

Review: Existence by David Brin

Title: Existence

Author: David Brin

Rating: 

Publisher: Tor Books

Format: e-Galley

Review:

I’ve been trying to catch up on classic science fiction as of late. Recently, I read through Isaac Asimov’s I Robot collection, which was written to an audience with a different set of expectations than readers today. Fifty-plus years ago, science fiction was largely a genre of ideas — where plot and characters took a back seat to shear innovation. In I Robot, the short stories serve mainly as a series of logic puzzles that explore the what-ifs of robot psychology. Today’s reader, on the other hand, has a greater concern for plot and character development. If a science fiction author is seeking to predict or in some way encourage the future of humanity, it can only be successful if the story itself entertains or instills emotion in the reader. Ideas alone are not satisfying enough. Plot and character development must stand on at least equal footing with the ideas being expressed or the modern reader will lose interest.

And so begins my review.

Existence is a novel about humanity’s first contact with an alien species. It begins with Gerald Livingstone, an outer space trash collector, encountering a strange artifact. He recognizes it not as an ordinary piece of space junk, but as an object with power that wants to communicate with him. It is a fitting introduction, as Gerald is not an elitist by prestige, class, or intelligence. He is an everyman, blue-collar worker, whose discovery could change the fate of humanity.

The point of view shifts in the coming chapters and we encounter Hacker, a rich playboy who is saved by dolphins after crashing his rocket into the ocean; Tor, a field correspondent who must come to terms with an event that changes her way of life; Hamish, an apocalyptic novelist; and Bin, a man who salvages material from drowned buildings and homes along China’s shore. In later chapters, we encounter even more viewpoint characters (perhaps ten in all?) who all play a role in humanity’s first contact.

As my introduction suggests, Existence is not a novel about a plot or really about characters either. It is more philosophical in nature, examining the possible ways that technology can benefit or bring the collapse to human civilization. Much of the doomsday predictions are told through excerpts at the end of chapters. In particular, a non-fictional work, Pandora’s Cornucopia is referenced with its several doomsday predictions.

David Brin is certainly ambitious in this work. His pursuit to understand humanity in Existence (an ambitious title itself) is in a sense an undertaking as large as the many physicists’ pursuit of the Theory of Everything. He examines history of human civilizations and tries to understand how our progress and innovation either assists or hinders us in thriving in the future. On one hand, I want to call this novel remarkable and brilliant, but on another, the narrative is fragmented, characters are severely underdeveloped, and the plot is loose and disconnected.

I think what frustrated me most was the constant diverging from the central storyline. I found the use of extracts to be burdensome in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, but his use of them was much more palatable than in Existence. 2312 managed to also be a science fiction novel of ideas, but was successful in interweaving innovation with plot and the characters. Robinson’s ambition was in the plausibility of inhabiting the entire solar system. Brin’s ambition is much broader — examining the plausibility of human existence itself, not just how and where we live. But without a satisfying story or characters I could cling onto, many of the concepts of Existence were swept away with the tide.

For those who are looking for a deep, philosophical look at humanity in the context of science fiction, you may find full satisfaction with what Brin has achieved in this novel. For those who are looking for an entertaining story with characters who have internal and external conflicts to overcome, this novel is entirely lacking. For myself, I am left somewhere in the middle, admiring Brin’s ambition and conceptualization, but being somewhat apathetic toward the lives of the characters within.