book review: company town

Madeline Ashby’s scifi novel Company Town is on the shortlist for Canada Reads 2017. Though it’s very specifically Canadian, it doesn’t feel like CanLit, and I am interested in how it will be championed.

Company Town is set on a futuristic city-sized oil-rig of the coast of Newfoundland. The protagonist, Hwa, is a bodyguard working for the sex-workers’ union when she gets hired by the new owners of the city/rig to bodyguard the young heir. She takes the new job and then her friends start getting murdered and disappeared, so she’s trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

A couple of the Canadian bits include there are comments about universal healthcare (and how that doesn’t cover Hwa’s chronic health issues), and when the first sex-worker is found dead they mention the authorities immediately implementing the standard Missing Murdered Disappeared protocol, and Hwa’s Newfoundland accent coming out in times of stress.

Otherwise it was a good techno thrillery kind of thing, with a mostly genetically enhanced population (who still have to work in the resource extraction industry, go Canada) and an outsider protagonist that dealt with things like post-traumatic stress pretty well. I noted while reading that it felt a bit like Charles Stross’ books (most notably Halting State in my mind) and then Stross was in the acknowledgements for getting the manuscript to an editor.

book review: neptune’s brood

Neptune’s Brood is a great space opera about interstellar banking by Charles Stross. Seriously great.

The protagonist, Krina Alizond, is a banking historian who now that she’s worked her way out of her indentured servitude to the hugely wealthy intelligence that created her, is into Ponzi schemes and especially how they play out over huge distances and slower than light travel. There are tonnes of digressions into the history of banking and how to set up a colony around another star when you can only travel at a percent of the speed of light and building a ship to do that is planetary economy expensive. The solution is debt and repayment over the long long term.

Alizond, is also interested in what happened to her sibling (who was also forked off of the same hugely wealthy being) on a distant world so she’s going there by hitching a ride working on a chapel-ship dedicated to the Fragile (ie humans who have not been upgraded to actually function in space and over the timescales one needs to be thinking in if you want to make a difference in a huge uncaring universe). There are banking privateers and mermaids and queens and a (really boring) space battle. It’s set in the same universe as Saturn’s Children, but I haven’t read that one and it did not matter at all.

Definitely one of my favourite books of the year, and it even includes an epigraph from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (one of my favourite nonfiction books). If you like thinking about how things could be if they were different, this is a book you should read. We have science fiction basically so books like this can be made.

book review: the book of cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu is a collection of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work. These are all stories that were written in the last thirty years and are the kinds of things that make me overlook a lot of HPL’s actual terribleness (inre: sexism & racism). The mythos, the secrets, the sense of foreboding are all what I like in a horrific world, and because these stories aren’t written by an early 20th century weirdo they don’t have the same kind of baggage.

Indeed, there were a number of stories in the collection that dealt with race pretty much head-on. I loved David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” which was a colonialist tale of Africa in which the heroes (a British scholar and American gunman) team up with a pack of pigshit-terrible Belgian slave-drivers to stop a summoning ritual by a cult the Belgians have been feeding through their murderous disfiguring practices in the pursuit of rubber. This was a story where the Belgians are constantly using the word nigger and chopping off black people’s ears and genitals and generally being horrible human beings, but they’re also necessary. It’s a story about evil and siding with evil and fighting evil and by the end of the story you feel kind of terrible that they did manage to save the world. That’s a mythos tale for you.

Also, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” was awesome because it posited a world where yes, these creatures existed and were inexplicable, but that just made them more interesting to scientists. It’s a science story instead of a horror story and it worked really well. Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” was about mythos weapons and their escalation, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Crawling Sky” was a pretty badass western featuring more rancid horsemeat than I expect in a story.

My least favourite story in the book was the Brian Lumley one about a circus sideshow. It felt too much like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Most of the book was really quite good though.

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.

books review: the revolution business, the trade of queens

It’s weird that a science fiction series that ends with a huge American nuclear attack on a fantasy world feels like it petered out, rather than built up to a grand huge climax, but that’s how the final couple of books (The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series felt to me. I’ve talked before about how each book felt like it was only a small part of a bigger story and the thing as a whole is probably what should be judged. But well, now that I’m done I have to say I can’t really recommend this series. Charles Stross has way better stuff out there.

What I did like about these books was the use of actual American politics in dealing with the revelation of other worlds. The books were set in the mid 2000s and the American administration at the time is used to full effect. There are stolen nukes and terrorist attacks and not creating fictional politicians to deal with that, but using the real characters helped.

Sadly, the story just kind of flops along. Miriam was pregnant with the heir to the throne in Gruinmarkt and then she has a convenient miscarriage and the nobles hide in a refugee camp in the other world, and everything is generally unsatisfying. Stross seems to have had a good time planning out the nuclear bomber wave, and that chunk of the final book was my favourite since the economic thinking from the first two books.

That’s what really got me about this series. The cool concept of these parallel worlds and the realistic way characters reacted to it by figuring out how to make a better living, well that gets lost along the way. Maybe it would have worked better if the books had jumped bigger timeline gaps so the economic stuff had more time to develop. I don’t know.

So my advice is to read the first two books of the series (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family) and stop there.

books review: the hidden family, the clan corporate, the merchants’ war

It seems fitting to review the second third and fourth books in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series together because the flaws they have as stand-alone books make sense if you look at them as chapters in a longer story.

At the end of book 1 in the series we were up to date with Miriam Beckstein, tech journalist who is also a countess in an alternate universe where the geography is shared with Earth but technology and society has spun off on a very different track. Miriam and her clan are people who can hop between that world and our own (it’s set in the early 00’s U.S. homeland security paranoia).

In The Hidden Family Miriam has learned about a third world which is where there are more world walkers who are trying to destabilize the Clan’s power base in the medieval world. This third world is kind of steampunkish and hugely politically repressive. Miriam is trying to create a new economic base for her extended family in that new world.

In The Clan Corporate basically nothing happens. It’s an intensely frustrating book, to Miriam as well, because she’s basically just locked up while her family figures out how to sell her to the royal family to squirt out worldwalking babies. We also meet a DEA agent who’s dealing with the aftermath of one of the medieval spies turning on the Clan’s drug smuggling operation.

By The Merchants’ War the Clan is plunged into civil war and Miriam is on the run in the steampunky world and we’re learning just how genre distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy are kind of dumb.

I really like the story this series is telling. People are clever and behave like real clever people might. I just hate how it’s broken down into these separate volumes so you need to have recap time and setup time before the grand climax of the book, which in books 3 and 4 don’t even really happen. It’s the kind of series that’s crying out for a one-volume edition with some of the redundant bits edited out, since nothing is standing at all on its own. (You may remember that I had the same issue with Dance With Dragons. Too much like catching up with the characters and not enough story-structure for my taste.) But I’m looking forward to finishing the series because Stross writes great, thought-provoking stuff and the fact that it’s getting less and less like Zelazny and more like, well, Stross makes me very happy.

book review: the family trade

The Family Trade is the first book in The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. It’s the story of Miriam Beckstein who’s a just-fired tech journalist. In the aftermath of the story that was too big to let her keep her job she discovers she’s a countess as part of a feudal clan in an alternate Earth that she has the rare ability to travel back and forth between.

While that sounds like it could be the basis of a pretty simple fish-out-of-water tale, this is Charlie Stross, so of course Miriam sets out to deal with the world, and change it. The riches of her clan on the other side are based on basically being drug mules on our side. While this is lucrative it’s also vulnerable to market fluctuations (if the war on drugs in the US ended, there would go their wealth and power).

Stross writes characters that are competent and resilient and generally deal with things so you can get to the next idea. It keeps the plot moving when you don’t have to wait ages for a character to figure out some problem the reader saw the answer to as soon as it was proposed. The grander idea of “how will Miriam reshape her clan’s economy” is an idea you want to puzzle over, and the main reason I’m going to be resolutely avoiding spoilers from here on out. I’ve read the background on how this series got split into volumes kind of weirdly and yeah, it’s pretty noticeable, since this book ends kind of right in the middle of things happening.

Good light, fast-moving stuff. I’m looking forward to the next book.