Rainbows End

Monday, January 25, 2021

Rainbows End
Vernor Vinge, 2006

Hugo Winner - 2007

Premise: In the near future, advanced technology means new healthcare, new communications, new dangers, and old human problems.

I was intrigued by the beginning of this book, a bit ambivalent but still curious in the overstuffed meandering middle, and thoroughly disappointed in the sloppy end. It's probably one of those that I would have abandoned if it wasn't part of my "read all the Hugo winners" project. 

I had three main problems by the end. One was mostly a function of when I read the book, but the other two were a fundamental failure to engage with the moral questions it posed and a refusal to reckon with its unlikeable main character.

The first problem I had with the book isn't so much a problem with the book as it is a problem with most near-future sci-fi. It was published in 2006. It's set in 2025. The advanced technology it proposes was plausible future tech in 2006, but isn't that related to the actual technology of today. Like, remember how people tried Google Glass and then decided we just wanted smartphones after all? Augmented and virtual reality have been "on the cusp" for so long that it's hard to picture them becoming the primary way EVERYONE interacts 24/7 with the world and each other anytime soon. 

In the book, everyone controls their computers with their clothes/bodies and sees them on their contacts. The book doesn't directly address this connection, but everyone can do this partially because of the crazy-advanced medical technology that cures nearly everything and makes old people young. (We'll come back to that.) The augmented reality includes being able to choose to see different overlays on reality, including many based on recognizable IP.

One small thing that threw me right out of the story was a sizable digression about things that Terry Pratchett was doing involved with this worldwide collaborative virtual reality project in 2019. It's more bad luck than anything that Vinge chose to briefly highlight someone who would pass away in 2015, and in a notable manner. But even though the artists that were important to the plot were fictional, the whole warring-groups-of-fans-fighting-over-their-various-consensual-realities subplot made me roll my eyes. That part was plausible but insipid.

One way in which the book is more plausible is in the very beginning. An analyst detects a weird occurrence that may be a pilot for a mind-control technique. The reader finds out shortly that it is, and that one of the high-level people ostensibly trying to track down the mind control project is, in fact, the author of said project. Most of the plot is set in motion by a Rube-Goldberg-esque scheme in which he is setting up a secret investigation of the lab while at the same time planning to alter the data so that he can continue to hide the project. 

In the second or so chapter, this character establishes his position -- that weapons of mass destruction are becoming too accessible to too many extremists, and so any technology that can make people not do that is justified. Now that is a fascinating question -- but it's one that the book completely abandons in favor of a bland and convoluted heist plotline. By the end, it might as well have been generic bad guy plot X. 

My largest problem with the book, however, is the main character. There are characters in this story who might be interesting if they got more development. Robert is not one of them. He used to be a famous poet. Then he got Alzheimer's. Then he got cured. At the start of the book, he's just received some treatments that make him functionally young again and he has to learn how to get along in what to him is the future. 

Oh, and he's an asshole. The book is clear on this point. He's lost his poetry mojo, and he's desperate to regain it, so he can go back to being a supercilious asshole. By the end I think the book wants to redeem him, by not getting his talent back, protecting his granddaughter (once when he's out of his mind on weird nerve gas and thinks she's his sister), and being a halfway decent person to a kid who tries to help him (after being an asshole over and over). It doesn't have his son or his ex-wife forgive him, which I was relieved by, but I felt like as the reader I was supposed to hope that his ex-wife would talk to him again sometime after the book ends. Now that he's chaaaanged. 

Which. No. Girl, just block that dude. He wants to be better, that can be something he does on his own time and far away from you. 

But the only characters who get resolutions after the plot collapses under its own weight get them in the context of Robert. I hate Robert. You don't learn about any of the interesting things happening in this world, because you're stuck following Robert. 

For making me angry with failed potential, this book gets:

1 Star - Didn't Like It

The Novice's Tale (Sister Frevisse, #1)

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Novice's Tale (Sister Frevisse, #1)
Margaret Frazer, 1992

Premise: Young Thomasina is eager to take her vows at the convent of St. Frideswide despite the objections of her wealthy aunt. When tragedy strikes, suspicion falls on the one who should be most innocent. 

I'll admit up front that I borrowed this book from the library on the strength of "kinda similar to Cadfael," and I was not disappointed. It's set in the 1400s instead of the 1100s, but the sub-genre of cozy-ish historical murder mysteries set in/around a Benedictine monastery/convent can't have that many entries, right? From the first page, it felt comforting, like a warm cup of tea. (A near trick for a murder mystery.)

I really enjoyed all the characters. The main protagonist, Dame Frevisse, was especially delightful between her gentle intelligent snark and practical convictions. The obvious antagonists were over the top without being too extreme, while the more subtle antagonists were implied to the reader without being too obvious. 

I especially liked the B-plot that in a Cadfael book would have turned into a romance didn't do that, instead staying true to the characters. 

I will definitely read more of these, it had just enough excitement and painted an engaging picture of the time. 

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Persephone Station

Monday, January 11, 2021

Persephone Station
Stina Leicht, 2021

New Release! A digital copy of this book was provided by Netgalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: There's only one human settlement on the planet Persephone, but there's a secret outside the city that some would kill to possess and some would die to protect.

This is one of those books that I regret to say was only fine. The cast has a great level of diversity in race, gender expression, and sexual orientation. However, the book is no more than an okay sci-fi action caper. 

The first chapter is really a prologue, but because it wasn't marked as such, I was confused when we never returned to following that character. (They do show up as a minor character much later, but by that point, I'd forgotten which character that was.) The secondary protagonist is the subject of the second chapter, and we finally meet the main character in chapter 3. She's fine, but nothing really stands out about her. 

That feeling was my main problem with the book - that there's a promising premise, but everything is underwhelming in execution. The mercenary characters help protect an alien city, but the action is nothing special. The aliens are implied to be special in lots of mysterious ways, but all we learn by the end is that they have advanced medicine, talk with smell, and are shapeshifters. It's neat, but it's not unique or dealt with in enough depth to be engrossing. 

There's a lot of references to the criminal underworld of the main human city, but we don't really see anything else in human society, so it just seems like a generic cyberpunk tone. There's another plot following an AI character, but we barely return to her perspective once her plot line coincides with the others. Overall the ending is unsatisfying; the intended emotional payoffs don't quite land. There are so many characters that I never felt compelled by any of them. The book is called "Persephone Station," but we never hear anything about the station until it's suddenly the setting for the final climax. 

Overall it's a decent read, I swear it is, but I wish it were more than that. 

2 Stars - An Okay Book (although I'm tempted to give it a bonus star for doing a decent job with the challenge of writing a character who uses they/them pronouns)

(P.S. I really REALLY hope that the "uncorrected proof" warning was true for this book. I got an advance copy, and there were an unusual number of typos, even for an advance copy.)

Axiom's End

Monday, January 4, 2021

Axiom's End
Lindsay Ellis, 2020

Premise: Cora thought that being the daughter of the world's most notorious conspiracy theorist/whistleblower (depending on your point of view) was as weird and stressful as her life was likely to get. Then it turned out that aliens were real.

If you know internet personality/film critic/media analyst Lindsay Ellis, you know that she likes genre stuff of all types, but has a special place in her heart for the Transformers. This is evident in her novel but I didn't find it distracting.

In broad strokes, the plot has a lot in common with many Transformers stories. Two alien factions come into conflict on Earth; a human with the ability/opportunity to communicate with one alien gets involved, as does the United States government.

Beyond that, the story plays with techno-organic lifeforms, alien methods of communication, and very human reactions to extreme situations. It took me a while to get into the story - I found the first section a bit too full of exposition and events I didn't understand. I also wasn't a big fan of Cora for a while - she was a bit bland and hapless at first. I did really like the speculation and world-building surrounding the question alluded to in the title. 

The book tipped a bit more toward tension and action than I expected, more thriller and less adventure, which isn't generally my taste, especially in 2020. However, once the plot picked up steam, I really enjoyed the read.

3 Stars - A Good Book