SF Book Review: Part 28

Of course, I’ve been reviewing a bunch of recent Hugo nominees separately, but it’s been a while since I caught up on reviews of other SF I’ve been reading, so let’s get to it:

  • Eon by Greg Bear – Before I left on vacation last week I posted a poll on twitter asking which SF book I should listen to during the drive (embedded in the vacation was also the annual Operation Cheddar side-mission, which also involves a lot of time in-car). Despite around 400 impressions, only four of you jerks voted, but this Greg Bear book was the winner. As it turns out, it’s very good and the audio-book was well produced, but man, it’s pretty heady stuff for a trip like this. The story starts in the far flung future of… 2005, when the US and Soviet tensions are strained and nearing a nuclear exchange. Into this volatile political environment comes a massive asteroid, appearing out of a huge energy burst just outside the solar system. It takes up a near-earth orbit, and what appears to initially just be a big-dumb-object turns out to hold secrets within secrets. It soon becomes clear that the “rock” or “potato” (as the Russians call it) is from the future, but maybe not quite our future. The rock once held an advanced civilization, and from studying in their libraries, we see that it was a human civilization made up of the remnants of nuclear war. The history described mostly (but not wholly) matches the history our characters know. Then there is the mysterious seventh chamber, which is larger than the asteroid itself and seems to house a singularity of some sort. This is a big, ambitious hard-SF novel that builds on top of previous big-dumb-object SF in a meaningful way. Sense of wonder abounds, and there are a bunch of startling plot developments throughout the story, which is far-ranging and demands close reading. The SF bits are well done, mixing accessible ideas with more mind-bending concepts. The latter can get a bit dicey or difficult to understand, but there’s enough underpinning them to keep the book from feeling bogged down by technobabble (your mileage may vary; it worked well for me). The characters suffer a bit in comparison to the idea content and plot. They’re likable enough, and Bear spends plenty of time with them, but they’re clearly not the focus of the story, and the book drags a bit when Bear focuses on them. At first, the book does seem hopelessly dated, what with all the Cold War machinations (and a weird Ralph Nader reference), but as we progress through the story and become acquainted with the concept of alternate universes, that complaint shrinks and nearly vanishes (clearly not intentional, as this was written during the Cold War, but still). The finale ties things together reasonably well, though there’s still some open ended questions, which I gather are addressed in a sequel to this book. Unlike most of these situations, I can actually see myself following up on that sequel, which I think says something. I don’t think Eon is quite as successful as Blood Music, but it’s still great, big-scope SF that’s well worth checking out.
  • Daemon by Daniel Suarez – When computer game magnate Matthew Sobol dies, a computer program awakens and starts executing various schemes. These start out as small scale murders, but quickly escalate into more devious and wide-ranging territory. Detective Peter Sebeck and a handful of others must find a way to counter the Daemon’s ambitions. Pretty straightforward techno-thriller type stuff, entertaining for what it is, but not quite grounded enough to really make an impact. In computer terms, a Daemon is a background process that waits for requests (a necessity in a multi-tasking OS). Here, the term is used more generally, as a mixture of sorta background AI that only kicks off processes once certain things happen (for example, the whole story is kicked of when the Daemon monitors the news for Sobol’s obituary). It’s not quite a full AI, but it’s implied that Sobol has thought up a lot of things in advance or something. Interesting enough as it goes, but the story often goes for flashy over subtle explorations. The character work is simple and purely functional, which again focuses on superficial explorations. This makes for an entertaining and quick read (even if it is probably too long and bloated at parts), but not something that really sticks with you. There is a lot of value in entertainment, and I feel like this often gets lost in the shuffle, so on balance, I liked this book. However, despite some loose ends, I probably won’t follow up on the sequel. That being said, I’m curious enough to pick up more Suarez at some point.
  • We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis Taylor – Bob Johansson just sold his software company and to celebrate, he signs up for a cryogenics program and almost immediately gets into an accident. He wakes up a century later to learn that corpsicles have no rights and that he’s now the property of a religious state. His consciousness has been digitized and he’s now going to be controlling an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets, which actually aligns pretty well with Bob’s personality. However, there are several competing programs out there (notably the Brazilians), and the universe is not necessarily a friendly place. A decent little exploration of Von Neumann probes told in a very entertaining, Scalzi-esque manner. Bob is reasonably likable, and so are the majority of his replicated brethren (each replicant having subtle probabalistic differences that can result in wildly different personalities), and each gets into their own curious adventure. Not as deep or ambitious as Eon, but not simple, trashy surface-level stuff like Daemon, this winds up being an entertaining little book. Clearly the first in a series, this is another one that I will probably revisit at some point.
  • Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks – This third novel in Banks’ Culture series tells the story of Cheradinine Zakalwe, an ex-special-circumstances agent recruited for one more mission by his former handler Diziet Sma and supported by the Culture AI Skaffen Amiskaw. Told in two alternating narrative streams, one moving forward chronologically, the other in reverse. Neither stream is notably great on its own, but their juxtaposition is what gives this novel its complexity as each alternating chapter informs the others, leading to a final revelation. While it is a genuinely well constructed novel, I also find that the glowing terms in which people describe this perhaps oversold the impact, and thus I wound up finding it a bit disappointing. The final narrative twist is interesting, but I’m not sure it can bear the weight of the rest of the story. In particular, the backwards-moving sections of the story are a little repetitive, disjointed, repetitive, and episodic, leading to lots of wallowing in guilt and misery, which is ultimately the point of Zakalwe (and not something I particularly enjoy). It’s still a good book, to be sure, but it’s much more of a character sketch than a space opera (though it contains enough window dressing on that front, I suppose). I liked it, but found Player of Games to be a much more effective story and probably my favorite Banks novel so far.
  • Millennium by John Varley – A DC-10 and a 747 collide in mid-air, and a team of investigators find a few bits of evidence that don’t quite fit. It turns out that teams of people from the future have been time-traveling to the moments before accidents like this and swapping out the passengers with prefabricated smoking bodies. When one such operation goes poorly, more time travelers need to go back to try and fix the problems before they cascade into bigger problems, blah blah, paradox. So this starts off enjoyably enough and the premise is put through its paces, but the ultimate justification and ending left me feeling hollow. I’m not entirely sure it all fits together, and the whole motivation behind the scheme wasn’t particularly well established. That said, the in-the-moment bits were pretty well done. It reminds me a bit of a J.J. Abrams mystery-box type story, where all the questions are tantalizing and mysterious, but the solution isn’t quite as satisfying as you’d like. So I enjoyed reading it, but it hasn’t stuck with me. I’d be down for reading more Varley at some point though…

These were the most recent five books that I’ve not already covered, but I have a few more to get to at some point, even if I read them quite a bit ago…

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