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: ender’s game

I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game a long time ago. I remember liking it, but rereading it now made me realize just how good it is.

Ender Wiggins has been bred to be a genius and maybe go to learn to be a genius military commander. He is a gifted child who’s forced into difficult situation after difficult situation in training to become a gifted strategist. He is 6 years old when the book begins.

The Game is about battle simulation and learning to become a leader. There is no romance in this book. There isn’t even real camaraderie, just the isolation and pain of duty and becoming the best. I don’t agree with the military glorification that happens throughout most of the story but the ending redeems even that for me. While they try to make Ender into a tool, so incredibly tough and lethalm he also remains human.

This humanity despite the fact that he acts little like any child I ever knew. The main strategic thesis of the book is that you respond with overwhelming force so you never have to fight the same battle twice. This is something that makes sense tactically but as the novel shows, it doesn’t make for a very happy life.

I’d always thought it was written before I was born but it wasn’t. One thing I really appreciated was the description of the simulations in the Battle Room. They’re like zero-G laser tag games, but they feel much better than that. Supposedly they’re making a movie but man, that’s going to feel so dated with all the CGI. The simulation technology in a book is so much better in its infinite upgradeability, no remake required.

book review: the left hand of darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those science fiction classics I hadn’t ever read. And it’s really good and I’m an idiot for not having read it until now, blah blah blah get all that stuff out of the way.

The protagonist of the book is not quite an ambassador from an interstellar consortium of humans. He is the only one on this planet called Winter. He’s there to ask the planet to join them. He’s not there with a fleet of ships, just by himself so that he can be a curiosity instead of a threat. That’s the idea at least.

The planet is interesting for its sexual dynamics. They’re human but strangely modified sometime deep in the past, so out of their 26 day months they are mostly androgynous. When they go into kemmer (which is sort of like estrous) their sexual characteristics come out, randomly male or female. This non-attachment to their gender is the fundamental strangeness of the people. Otherwise we see two nations: one is a monarchy led by an insane king. The other is a civilized Kafkan bureaucracy. Everywhere is cold. The last third of the book takes place on a thousand-mile hike across glaciers.

It was a beautifully sad book. It’s about friendship and gender and the complete blindness a person has when dealing with the foreign. The language is a bit interesting for a book dealing with gender so strongly. The masculine pronoun is used for all the androgynes because the neutral would have had too strange of connotations, says the narrator.

I believe it won a Hugo and that there are more books in the same universe, which I will now slowly read.

book review: crystal nights

Greg Egan is amazing. I love his novels but his short stories seem almost more awesome because they get to crystallize some idea and let you spin it yourself. Crystal Nights and Other Stories is an excellent collection of science fiction. There are stories about interstellar travellers who explore a rogue planet through digitally transmitted personalities into grains of rice and insects. There are stories about having an artificial intelligence child when you are worried about what the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics implies about all those yous for whom life hasn’t worked out so great. There’s a story about an alternate version of Alan Turing and C.S. Lewis and how faith you cling to desperately utterly fucks one of them up. Such a good book. It’s the kind of thing that might make you want to read science fiction if you didn’t already. Or maybe I’m projecting too much into that. I’m going to recommend it far too much for a while.

book review: the cyberiad

I love Stanislaw Lem stories. The Cyberiad is filled with stories about these two rival constructors Trurl and Klapaucius and the amazing things they invent and the troubles they get into. The stories read like fairy tales because of the surfeit of kings of planets who demand things and then won’t pay and then everybody gets into a huge huff and things sort of work themselves out. My favourite story was about the Pirate with a PhD, who wanted all of the constructors’ knowledge and they were horrified because “We’re so smart and full of knowledge that’ll take forever!” Almost everything is solved by building a clever robot, or a dumb robot in a clever way. Great stuff.