book review: hidden figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is pretty much what the title implies. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the West Computers, starting from the WW2 days when computers meant people who did math, up to the Apollo 7 mission. It was a story I hadn’t heard before, not like the women of Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi codes in WW2 (though I suppose even the Bletchley story isn’t something I grew up hearing).

The story is interesting and Shetterly tells it well, though it does meander through a few people’s stories, meaning it doesn’t have a person to hang the story on (I imagine the movie version was more focused than the book is). It felt a bit like a lot of anecdotes plus authorial interjections about how meaningful that was.

One thing I wanted a lot more of was what exactly these women did. I wanted to see some math, instead of just taking the author’s word that they were doing very smart things. I kind of got the impression that Shetterly didn’t trust her audience to actually find the math interesting, and that put a bit of an interpretive distance between the text and me. It also felt a bit like a model-minority narrative, but that’s less about the book than about the decision to write this specific book, so whatever. Also, the military-industrial-complex rah rah ing (look how much these scientists had to do with the B-29 that delivered death to millions of people) was something that raised my hackles.

But in all, it was good.

book review: leviathan wakes

I don’t really need more television in my life at the moment (we’re currently watching the third season of Fargo and chugging through Angel) but there’s a space opera show on SyFy called The Expanse. I’ve been hearing good things about it, and huzzah it’s based on a book series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham). I have way more room in my life for more books than more TV, so here we go.

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in The Expanse. It’s got a couple of viewpoint characters: Holden and Miller. Miller is a detective on Ceres, and Holden starts off as the executive officer on an ice-hauling spacecraft. Things happen and soon the solar system is engulfed in war while these two are trying to do something about it.

It’s a good book. I enjoyed the politics, and the Firefly-esque nature of the ship-bound stuff. A lot more characters died than I expected, and the only alien in the book was pretty intense. I appreciated the consequences that radiation poisoning had on characters, even though they could get most of their organs regrown. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was very well executed. The plot kept the problem-solution-escalation dance spinning nicely and the bouncing between viewpoints kept me reading.

book review: twisty little passages

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is a nonfiction book about text adventure computer games by Nick Montfort. I picked it up to read for a program I did at work on digital storytelling. The ILL didn’t come in time for the program but no one came to the program anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.

The book was about the history and some of the artistic merit behind text adventure gaming, not the point-and-click stuff like the classic Sierra games I grew up playing with my buddy, but the ones where you’re given some text and you type some text and if you type the right thing you get further into the game, like Zork (although Zork isn’t depicted with as much reverence in the book as I had naively expected). The first game that started this form was called Adventure and was about exploring caves and solving puzzles with a randomly appearing pirate messing with you. Now they’re more complex.

The book was written about 10 years ago so my further research shows that some of the languages and tools used to create this stuff have moved on. It’s an intriguing enough topic that I’m doing the further research. We’ll see if the fiction I’ve been writing might work better in this weird little form.

book review: across the nightingale floor

Across the Nightingale Floor is a story with a medieval “Asian” setting in which a young man is saved from his destroyed village by a noble tragic lord and is taught mad ninja skills to take revenge on the evil lord who destroyed his village (and killed his new noble lord’s brother in a battle years before). It is a pulpy story in which Takeo stops speaking and thus can hear everything happening in the castle because his father he didn’t know was part of the assassin clan that exists. There’s another storyline about a young woman who’s a hostage being used as a bargaining chip by the evil lord. She’s going to be married to the noble lord, even though he secretly loves the head of the only clan allowed to be led by women… Fairly standard samurai/ninja melodrama.

It was okay, but I’m not rushing out for the rest of them. I think most of my problems revolved around how it felt like a nice white person writing an old D&D Oriental Adventures module. A good module, but still. I’d much more strongly recommend Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (which is more of an epic mashup) or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven series (which is in not-China, but a specific-feeling not-China instead of a mashup of feudal Japanese-ish stuff).

 

book review: the one hundred nights of hero

Isabel Greenberg’s The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a comic of linked folktales in a Scheherazade-esque kind of structure. Two shitty old men engage in a bet that one can’t seduce the other’s wife in one hundred nights and to deflect the lecherous powerful asshole she gets her lover/maid to tell them stories. The stories are about murder and the moon and strong sisters and magic pebbles (two of them) and there’s a 12 dancing princesses story in there that turns out a bit differently.

I enjoy Greenberg’s drawing style and the flattening of perspective that make the art fit the tales that feel home told and passed along (much like the stories in the story are passed along). Highly recommended.

book review: the mirror thief

I found Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief in the course of helping a library user learn how to download ebooks. I grabbed it as a random example from our Mystery & Thriller category and the blurb intrigued me. It’s a three-timeline story about 1) a vet home from Afghanistan trying to find an old gambler friend of his father’s in 2003 Las Vegas, 2) a homeless teenage grifter looking for the poet who wrote a book he’s desperately trying to understand in 1950s California and 3) an alchemist in 1500s Italy arranging the theft of mirror-making artisans for the Hakemi Sultan in Constantinople.

The three settings (the Venetian, Venice Beach and Venice) felt distinct in style of story and language, but connect reasonably satisfactorily. It wasn’t mind blowing but it was entertaining.

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book review: the laundry files (complete series)

I have been a fan of Charles Stross’ work for many years. I remember reading Accelerando and liking it once I got my head around it, and enjoying the near-future police procedural books like Halting State but it was Glasshouse and Neptune’s Brood that turned me into an “I will read whatever this gentleman puts out” kind of reader. So it’s a little weird I haven’t read his Laundry Files series.

On the surface this seems made for me. I love the confluence of lovecraftian mythos and modern technology stories. I enjoy tales of rebellious smartasses in confining structures they were not made for but have to deal with. But for whatever reason I never got into Stross’ version of that. Much like my filling the Dark Tower gap last year, I decided to go for it in 2017. I read the entire series in order (mostly) from February to April and put my thoughts in this review as I went. There are a couple of later additions to reviews, mostly to change speculations about my opinions to solidify them a bit. At the end of the review I do suggest my top three stories to read if you don’t want to commit to a seven novel + assorted short works series.

Short orientation: The Laundry is a British governmental department dealing with “things humans were not meant to know.” It turns out the multiverse is leaky and math that looks like magic (and that’s much easier to do with late 20th-early 21st century computing power) can summon tentacly beasts and other malign entities from nearby or far realities. The Laundry tries to clean up those messes.

the atrocity archives

Bob Howard works a desk job for the Laundry fixing their IT systems. He asks to get assigned to active duty and gets to help extract Mo from the United States when her brain’s contents have been tagged as an interesting asset by the Americans. Things happen and Bob saves the universe from a Nazi-summoned energy-sucking entity.

One of the things I liked most about this book is how Bob’s physical solving of problems amounts to figuring out a clever way to call for help and get it there quickly. I wasn’t a big fan of the way Bob’s female superiors were portrayed as harpies worrying about the stupid inconsequential shit while the boys bluffly went off to save Mo and the world.

concrete jungle

In this short story Bob investigates the intersection of a Gorgon effect with the UK’s rampant surveillance camera culture in the middle of a bureaucratic power-play back at the Laundry’s office. Bob’s female supervisors (who were written as loathsome characters) get removed for their crimes and I hope the gendering of nags getting in the way of the serious work done by fun bros will ease up as the series progresses.

the jennifer morgue

The Jennifer Morgue takes Bob Howard and puts him into a Bond movie, but one where the agent we spend the most time with has to deal with an underpowered smartcar and the ignominy of wearing a suit while thwarting a possessed billionaire trying to summon something from the briny depths (in violation of many secret treaties).

I never like plot devices where a character is forcibly attached to another character against their wills so the way that happened in this book gave me a bit of the squicks, but otherwise I appreciated this one. Falling into Bond tropes (despite how unrealistic they are for secret agents) is the driver of the plot but the fact they are Bond clichés is part of the villain’s master plan.

This one also did veer away from the women in power as naggy evil bitches trope, which let me breathe a sigh of relief (I was pretty sure it’d happen since I knew Stross’ more mature work, but am glad I didn’t have any more books of it to sit through).

down on the farm

This short story has Bob investigating the asylum where Laundry field agents are sent when their brains break from their mathematical sorcery. There’s a clever enough “so that’s what’s going on!” reveal but because the story was so short there wasn’t enough build-up or room to complicate it.

equoid

“Equoid” is a short novella about unicorns. But Lovecraftian unicorns part of the larger Shub-Niggurath meme. Bob heads out into the country to check up on a thing and ends up in a tentacly horrific mess. My favourite aspects of this story included the twists to what could have been a very predictable plot, and the specific in-continuity addressing of the role Lovecraft plays in the Laundry Files universe. It’s my favourite of the short Laundry works, and I’d argue the best entry point to the series.

“Equoid” was originally published free online at Tor.com, but I had to go into the Wayback Machine to find the copy linked to above.

the fuller memorandum

In The Fuller Memorandum Bob Howard and his wife Mo O’Brien are dealing with cults. Doomsday cults. Bob’s dangerous boss goes missing and he’s making mistakes so his nice boss is sending him home for stress leave but there are Russians in London and the timeline for the end of the world has been pushed up.

This book got way more violent and darker than the previous ones felt (though I’d say “Equoid” is the most viscerally unsettling of all the stories). Daycares are terrorist targets and there’s a lot of death magic going on. It was fine, but less jokey and fun as Bob is maturing his way up the hierarchy of the Laundry. I appreciate that the evil management of bureaucracy shtick wasn’t focused on a harpy in this book.

overtime

“Overtime” is a short Xmas story about forecasting Ops and the imminent onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. The belief in Santa as the walls between realities get weaker is causing a tentacly monster to come down the Laundry’s chimney and Bob, who’s working the holiday night shift, has to deal with it. It is an okay story but nothing special.

the apocalypse codex

The Apocalypse Codex is about infiltrating an American megachurch that has some heretical beliefs (involving waking sleeping gods and putting mind-control bugs in people who don’t buy into the theology willingly). This is also the first of the novels that has Bob in a management role. I appreciated the “learning how to let your team to the job” aspects, though Bob does get to do some stuff himself too.

My biggest problem with the book is the scale of the aftermath. Big things happen to thousands of people in Colorado in this story and I would think dealing with that would be difficult at the least, so I hope it’s not swept under the rug. Stross usually is pretty good about following up on aftermath so I’m not too worried.

The other problem with this book was that there wasn’t enough Mo, and there was a Mo substitute. I understand why the story needed someone other than Mo in the badass superspy role, but that Persephone Hazard was so undifferentiated from Mo made it fall a little flat. The characters in general felt more plot-expedient than actual people, but maybe that’s just familiarity wearing through.

the rhesus chart

I think The Rhesus Chart is my favourite book in this series. Though there wasn’t as much aftermath from The Apocalypse Codex as I expected there is mention of some of those meetings. The great part of this book is that it’s a vampire story. But of course vampires don’t exist. Mo lays out all the ways that vampires as portrayed in fiction wouldn’t work, from caloric intake needs to turning the entire global population into vampires and all of that. But then some high-flying quants in an investment bank become vampires and the story unfolds.

I liked it because the story brought us out of some of the “terrible world shaking doom” rut the main novels could have been settling into; this is actually a pretty personal small-stakes story. I always like “real science” vampire explanations and the “magic is computation” conceit of the Laundry Files led into some interesting work with that. I also loved the banker/vampire-talk. They were using Scrum management techniques and all the buzzwords, because they were just a startup entering an industry where the dominant players were very old and entrenched.

The weakest part of the book in my opinion was the vampire-hunter, though I’m glad she was introduced into the story quite late so we didn’t have to spend much time with her.

the annihilation score

The Annihilation Score is a Laundry Files book about superheroes and policing, but more importantly it’s a Mo O’Brien centred story. After the vampire threat lay waste to the Laundry (and Bob and Mo’s marriage) in The Rhesus Chart, Mo is put in charge of dealing with the outbreak of super-abilities among people who aren’t sorcerors.

It’s about PR and what a superhero uniform looks like, and explaining actions to very powerful government people, especially when there’s a racist super tossing trucks at counter-demonstrators vs the much more powerful djinn summoner hiding in a friendly neighbourhood mosque. Politics yo.

It was good. I found the marriage-breaking-up stuff good and humanizing along with the demon violin infiltrating Mo’s head, but needing it to do her job. Again, this one made management seem like a not-so-terrible thing if done properly, which makes me wonder what I’m becoming.

the nightmare stacks

The Nightmare Stacks is a Laundry Files novel about an alien invasion, but by faerie. This one doesn’t have Mo or Bob in it, and uses one of the vampires from The Rhesus Chart, Alex, as the main protagonist. The Laundry is moving to Leeds and there are prognostications that things are going to go badly.

The faerie are gracile hominids whose world has been destroyed by tentacly beasts and magic (the sort of thing the Laundry is trying to avoid on Earth), who use magical geas as their will to power instead of language. They’re brutal and inhuman and one of their spies with a bit more empathy than her species would prefer gets involved with the invasion (and – spoiler alert – turning it around).

It was fine, but I felt like I’d read this plot before in Stross’ Merchant Princes series. Again, we’ve got knockoffs of the original Laundry characters playing roles that aren’t very dissimilar from what the originals used to be, which makes the originals feel retrospectively thinner and more puppety. I liked how it ended, but the situations weren’t enough to make up for the characters.

series thoughts

And here we are, all caught up as of April 2017. (There’ll be another Laundry Files novel coming out this summer.) I’m not sure it was to the series’ benefit to read them all in two months like this. You can see a bit more of the formula to the series, the strings holding up the puppets, and the repeated explanations of how things work that you remember from the book you read last week.

In general though, I like the books. If I’m recommending the highlights for someone who doesn’t want to plow through the whole array in order, I’d suggest “Equoid,” The Fuller Memorandum and The Rhesus Chart as the three to start with, and then fill in bits afterwards if you like those.