book review: equations of life

Simon Morden’s Equations of Life is a pretty good Gibson-esque near future SF-noir book. Samuil Petrovich is a PhD student in London after Armageddon (which was not religious in nature, just a global catastrophe that sunk Japan, rained poison and generally made the world suck). When the story starts he interferes with a kidnapping and then things spiral into quantum computing, riots and eloquent gangsters threatening clueless American programmers. It’s a quick moving book and Petrovich is a very competent protagonist, who rides luck and resources he doesn’t explain till late in the book.

The thing I liked least was Petrovich’s cursing in Russian. It seemed manufactured and didn’t fit the rhythms of the rest of his dialogue. I kept on picturing the author asking his Russian friends for really vulgar curses and then consulting the list whenever he needed to make Petrovich look tough. Which is fair enough I guess. It just brought me out of it.

But generally it was a good little book. I enjoyed how Petrovich had a very weak heart, so all of his Russian cursing and bad-assness was not paired with any real physical impressiveness.

book review: rule 34

Rule 34 is the kind of Charles Stross book I like. It’s Edinburgh in the future and spammers are dying in graphic ways, seemingly dreamed up in 4chan. Liz Kavanaugh is a police detective whose career is in the shitter, trolling the internet for memes that could become dangerous, and she gets pulled into the investigation.

The book is told in second person for the most part, putting the reader into a lot of different characters’ places including a non-neurotypical mobster with something terrifying in his suitcase. And seriously, though nothing is described with slasher-movie levels of glee at depravity, this is the sort of book that could probably use trigger warnings.

One of the big ideas in this book (that I don’t remember from Halting State, but could very well have been there too) is that Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Rebus and whatever are a load of bollocks in terms of modern criminal investigation. In the future, good detectives are no longer the hyper-observant individual. That’s what computers are for. Good detectives in the future are good managers of people and IT to get all the cogs working together. There’s a lot of great ideas throughout the book, and not decades-old thoughts about how scary Artificial Intelligence would be.

If you don’t like second-person narration and thoughts on the future of criminality and stock manipulation this probably isn’t a great choice for you to read. But if that doesn’t turn you off and you like thinking about Makerbots and the seamy underbelly of future economies, it’s a must-read.

book review: the fractal prince

In order to get my copy of Hannu Rajaniemi’s latest book The Fractal Prince I had to learn how to pronounce the author’s surname. Luckily, the owner of my local bookstore is of Finnish descent and could help me out with that. In return, I will talk about mad science fiction with her customers if she asks.

And The Fractal Prince is kind of an insane book. In the best possible way.

It’s the sequel to The Quantum Thief and it’s again about cryptography as the key to an information-based future. While the Quantum Thief was about a score on Mars, this book heads back to Earth, which has a tiny part of it being preserved for people with bodies they don’t jump into and out of as needs must.

There are two parallel storylines going: one follows the thief who must return to Earth to… do stuff, and the other follows the daughter of a politician who is kind of disgraced because she loves monsters. Technological informational djinn who roam the desolate parts of earth. The more advanced technological civilizations (like the thief’s) who don’t usually bother with things that aren’t already virtualized get infected by the code running wild on earth.

What I love about this book (and its predecessor) is how you’re dumped into these mind-bending realities and forced to absorb and deal with them. Part of the genius in how that’s done here is that characters are recognizable as humans in the way that they need stories and metaphor to even explain to themselves what the hell they’re doing.

So it’s a book about cryptography, but it’s a book about djinni who whisper secrets. It’s great (and would have been on my top 12 books of 2012 if I’d finished it before making the list), but would be a terrible first science fiction book for someone used to more recognizable humans.

book review: cyberabad days

Cyberabad Days is a collection of short stories set in the world of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. That world is a 21st century where India has fragmented into mini-states banning or making huge amounts of money on aeais and genetic engineering and drought (and cricket).

The collection is good for getting into the details of how some of the weirder aspects of the world worked than you can really get into in the middle of a novel. Setting up other characters who are marrying aeais while the Water War happens is a great way to make the world feel deeper. The final story in the book is about one of the hugely-long-lived Brahmin gengineered children and it’s the only story that really moves the world past the big events that happen in the novel. I think it was my favourite story because of that, though “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” was te kind of complete little tale that I enjoy.

If you wanted to see if you’d like River of Gods (which is a pretty big fat book) you wouldn’t do too badly to read one or two of these stories, but don’t read “Vishnu and the Circus of Cats” because that will kind of mess up a lot of reveals from the novel. And for the record, my favourite Ian McDonald book is still Desolation Road.

book review: surface detail

As always when I read one of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, after Surface Detail it took me a while to get back into twenty-first century human life. Surface Detail is about a war over hells and whether they should be allowed to exist or not, and it’s about endlessly fighting battles, and about revenge and political expediency.

There’s an excellent bastard you’re rooting against for being terrible, but you know he doesn’t give a shit if you want him to win or not, and a woman who gets murdered in the first chapter (almost everyone dies at least once in this book) and then crosses the galaxy to get revenge, and a couple who voyage to hell and one of them doesn’t make it out again, and an appropriately uncouth Ship designed for battle. Pretty excellent stuff.

book review: excession

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are the kinds of books that make me want to be very elsewhere, living in a post-scarcity economy with control over your biology and the ability to live for hundreds of years and be eccentrically apart from society for decades if you want. I got Excession in Portland for a dollar and it was much more than worth that, just for the ability to have conversations about switching genders and carrying children simultaneously and letting the kid gestate for 40 years with no ill effect. And to have incredible intellects machinating about wars and science and the power to do whatever the hell you want.

This isn’t much of a review. I’m sorry. I just love this kind of book. It’s aspirational and the kind of thing I’m never going to see outside of a science fiction novel. The possibilities out here in reality feel so limited some days. Sigh.

book review: home is the hangman

I got this Roger Zelazny short novel/long story, Home is the Hangman at a used bookstore, basically because the other half of the book was a Samuel R. Delany short novel/long story I wasn’t sure I’d read (it turns out I had). Home is the Hangman was basically a Blade Runner-esque plot. A detective is tracking down the people this maybe-artificial intelligence might be on its way to kill after going kind of weird as a worker up on Europa. It was a quick read, and a decent little tale. Nothing tremendously crazy happens to overturn your idea of what it’s going to be. It’s just a straightforward sf-noir-ish story.