book review: all the birds in the sky

Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky is great. The main characters start off as a couple of weird kids, one who talks to birds and another who builds a two-second time machine, and the story is about how they, well, interact is a clinical word, but it’s an appropriate one. Each of them embodies a different way of looking at the world off-kilterly, one through nature-magic and the other through mad-science.

It’s really good, but don’t expect it to feel realistic. For the first third of the book I was unsure why this wasn’t marketed as a more science-fictional Eleanor & Park. As kids there’s an assassin sent to deal with them but he’s not allowed to directly kill minors so he becomes their guidance counsellor and becomes really well-liked in that role. Then there’s a time jump to adulthood and the fate of the world starts to become an issue (and it loses some of that YA romance feeling). Later in the book it feels much more like The Magicians, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Makers or Seveneves.

One issue might be its optimism in the face of the end of the world, like there’s going to be an escape valve that we’ll actually all be okay. I think it walked the line well, but your mileage may vary.

book review: flavor

Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.

One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.

book review: the collapsing empire

The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi’s most recent space opera. It takes the tropes of far flung planets and space ships travelling between them and puts some interesting characters doing clever things in those ships and places of power and knowledge. Yup. Good stuff.

The collapsing part of the empire (called the Interdependency because they rely on trade between stars to survive) is that the bits of nonspace that connect these farflung worlds without having to travel actually faster than light (though the effect is pretty much the same in a Traveller-esque fashion) are shifting, and that’s shifting how power will play out on the grand scale. It’s a good ecological metaphor and I enjoyed how humanity has had to build habitats wherever they could connect to each other, rather than on planets that would be suitable for bearing human life.

I’m a bit interested in what will happen when the shifting status quo meets up with either Earth or a generationship kind of thing that didn’t use the networks that are shifting. It’s a series though, so that doesn’t happen in this book. It was a fine light read; a good popcorn book. As far as space opera I’ve read recently I like it better than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but not as much as Leviathan Wakes or The Stars Are Legion.

book review: rocannon’s world

Rocannon’s World is another Ursula K Le Guin paperback (I told you I recently bought a trove of these things). This one is a science fiction story about Rocannon, a high tech surveyor of planets and cultures, who gets trapped on a primitive world when the high tech enemy destroys his ship and crew. He and some stalwart companions must voyage across half the planet to find the enemy’s faster than light radio to get a message out to his allies. So yeah, it sounds like a basic colonial quest narrative.

What I loved about it was the long prologue, which is about a princess from one of the poor scrabbling cultures who travels to the stars to reclaim a treasure the colonialists stole from her ancestors. When she returns with the jewel, the vagaries of lightspeed travel mean that it was all for nothing and everyone she loves is dead. I love this because it puts the reader first in the head of the people who live on this world, and what their concerns are, before moving to the great scientific hero who must lead the primitives to save them from themselves.

Also, the quest is much more of a fantasy story than a technological one. Rocannon has an impermeable suit of protection, but he carries no weapons. At one point he is burned at the stake for days because his captors don’t understand it and think him magical, but he wins that confrontation by standing without water for that time, which is killing him just as surely (though slower).

The climax is a little anticlimactic, but I liked the book as a whole.

book review: this is how you die

This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death is a collection of short stories about people who know how they will die as predicted by a Machine. It is, of course, a sequel anthology to Machine of Death (in which I had a story).

Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North and David Malki ! have put together a great collection of stories. As is usual with an anthology some are more to my taste than others. I quite enjoyed the stories that played with the idea of “unkillable” people (who’d all have cancer or something non-violent) and putting them into badass commando roles. My favourite of these was probably Tom Francis’ “Lazarus Fission Reactor Sequence” which also combined some office comedy as part of being a henchman for a supervillain in there too, but the grim science fictiony “Not Applicable” by Kyle Schoenfeld was also pretty great.

Rhiannon Kelly’s “Natural Causes” was my favourite of the more “realistic” stories because of how it dealt with small-town issues of appearances and conformity. And Ryan North’s “Cancer” laid down some real science and feelings.

So yes, this book did feel a bit more diverse than the first one. The stories covered a wider range of settings and people were definitely playing with some more meta-ish concepts surrounding the Machine. You should totally read it. (And if you participated in the Summer 2013 Humble Ebook Bundle you probably have a copy of the first volume to whet your appetite, so go read it first!)

book review: the age of miracles

I don’t think I’m unreasonable in being disappointed in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. The concept of the book is that the planet’s rotation is slowing, and the protagonist is a 12-year-old girl in California just living her life, trying to deal with things like unpopularity and parental infidelity.

One one hand, the book had this science fictional concept of the earth slowing and days lengthening, which is kind of interesting and no more ridiculous than Life As We Knew It‘s moon suddenly getting all up in Earth’s face. But it’s written as if the author had no idea how seasons work. There’s a bit of lip-service to the madness that comes from white nights at extreme latitudes, but the idea that the sun going down at 9pm isn’t a terrifying thing seemed completely foreign to the author. There’s a bit of information tossed in about the earth’s magnetic field, but it was very cursory.

Also, all of the big problems that arise from this global catastrophe are kind of glossed over in simplistic ways. Not just that the 12-year-old protagonist glossed over them because she didn’t get them, but like the author didn’t think it through very hard and just had the idea of monolithic blocks that would react in certain ways across the continent if not the globe.

So it seems to me that the book wasn’t written to be a science fiction book, but a backdrop for this young girl’s story. Fine. I can get behind the idea of a coming of age story in the midst of global crisis. The science and sociology could have been passed off as niggling details to annoy me if the story of the girl was compelling, but I did not find it to be so. There was a boy, and a lack of friends, and death, and a cheating father. It wasn’t terrible, but it felt simplistic and too uninvolving to distract me from the issues I had with the end of the world.

It might be an okay YA book, but I think a lot of readers would be put off by the lack of plot. In any case, Life As We Knew It is a much better YA book in the same vein.

book review: the clockwork rocket

What I love about reading Greg Egan books is reading about creatures that are psychologically very recognizable but physically alien. In other books this comes through reading about robots and software, but The Clockwork Rocket is about a species of blobby aliens living in a universe where different colours of light have different speeds.

On their world there are male and female aliens that I picture as macroscopic amoeba type things. Reproduction means the female splits into four children (two males and two females who are brought up as “co”s brother-sisters but also as future mates), whom the father then raises. Yalda is a female who doesn’t have a co. She grows up on a farm and moves to a city and becomes a scientist and eventually leads an expedition away from their world to try and save it from an impending disaster (by using the weird properties of the speed of light in their universe).

There are digressions exploring the nature of light and toroidal universes in this book. Some people might not like them. I did. I also loved the political explorations of birth-control in a species where having children necessarily means the death of the mother. It’s very much an ideas book, and there are sequels, which I’ll definitely read eventually.