Review: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

In the near future, the ice caps are going to melt, sea levels will rise, and disaster will hit the planet. Unlike other apocalypses in fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson seems to suggest that we’ll do alright after all this. New York 2140 looks at the city of New York after the disaster. The world has adjusted, with New York becoming a city of canals, where keeping the water out is as important as getting around. Into this world, Robinson places the importance of the finance trader.

The story itself starts with the disappearance of two programmers and then becomes a history of the world, a travelogue of New York, and a treasure hunt. Once the necessary enviromental issues are taken care of, Robinson starts with what appears to be his real agenda. In order to make sure his readers understand everything, Robinson has information dumps along the way. We are presented with an author who is annoyed at how the GFC of 2008 was handled, and he puts forward a solution to it.

This is not a fast moving story, but it is not boring. The characters all get thier own chapters. They are what Robinson does well – regular people just trying to get through. The fact that his future seems possible, and is logically extrapolated from current events, make this novel seem like a warning for the future. Both enviromentally, and economically – ignore his ideas at your own peril. 

Overall, a good book, and one that should be a jump-off point for discussion

Review: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

When a family of psychics gets discredited in the 1970s, you would think that their story would end right there. 

Nope.

It is just the start.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory picks up the story of the Telemachus family in 1995. At first glance, this could easy be a piece of nostalgia. But it goes beyond that. It tells the story of a family that is dysfunctional, committed, and more than the 1970s produced.

The story is told with a series of flashbacks that advance the story and add to the sense of loss the weaves through the story. That’s not to say that this is a depressing story. Far from it. With mob bosses and government agents, the family pulls together with the fighting, bitching, and humor that a family will do.

And when the chips are down, they all come together. The climax of the novel is one of the best endings of a story I’ve read. 

Overall, an enjoyable and gentle book.

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

In the future, corporations will rule everything and crafted drugs will help people achieve many things. Those on the fringe will fight against this same world. From this description, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz would seem like another rip off William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but it’s more than that.

Based in the year 2144, this story tells of a pirate drug maker,  who reverse engineers patented drugs and then sells on the cheap. When an issue is found with the drug, the race is on. With the help of other pharmaceutical patent pirates, an escaped indentured human, and a robot, she will try to find a cure. Hot on her heels is an Intellectual Property Police office, partnered by a brain encased in a robot’s carapace.

What I found interesting was the interaction between technologies. For those into computers, the concept that all machines identify both parties and start and end data is one that rings true. That’s where Autonomous is done very well. All the ideas put forward in this story appear to be extrapolated from current ideas. Given Newitz’s background in technology and science journalism, this is hardly surprising.

The only problem that I really felt was the development of the world itself. Granted the scenes are well written, but some locations felt that they were just names, without much difference to other locations. The locations in Africa felt much the same as those in Canada. But this is a minor qualm. 

This is a good book, from a writer whose fiction will certainly be worth watching in the future.

Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

In the lead up to the 2018 Nebula Awards, our sci-fi and fantasy guru Shaun Taylor reviews the nominees.

When read a story, we assume that what the author is telling us, is the truth. But what would happen if a number of classic stories were wrong ?

Theodora Goss plays with this premise really well in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. The adult daughter of Dr Henry Jekyll begins to investigate her father’s strange associate. Along the way, she teams us with a number of females who are the results of various experiments. Along the way, Goss brings into the question the narrative of four classic horror stories. She applies the approach to her own narrative as well, as the main characters interrupt the flow to bicker about what is being written about them and the events they experience.

The 1890s London in this novel is filled with the cabs, poverty and opulance that the modern reader has come to expect of stories from this time. Goss manages to bring this setting to life, both in terms of the physical descriptions, as well as the social and political aspects, with characters bickering about the issues of the day.

This is a pleasant romp of a story that covers familiar ground, with a wink and nod, and its intrusions add to the fun of the novel. For those interested in the genre, this will be an enjoyable novel. For those are are not familiar with the stories referenced, it maybe a little confusing. I did have to Google one of the stories myself, so don’t feel bad and stick with it – it’s a fun read.

Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

In the lead up to the 2018 Nebula Awards, our sci-fi and fantasy guru Shaun Taylor reviews the nominees.

In the final installment of Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin presents an incredible vision of the end or rebirth of the planet.
With Essun and Nassun – Mother and Daughter – against each other, the clock is ticking for each race across this apocalyptic landscape. The narration jumps between the two, with each character’s chapter being told in different tenses. Essun’s is told first person, present tense, while Nassun is third person, past tense.

While this does help differentiate the characters, and makes Essun’s story a little more personal, I found it a little unsettling until I got into the swing of things. The story of the two women is also broken up by a third story in the voice of the novel. Without giving too much away, the novel does reveal that the two strands of the novel are actually being told by the same person.  I found the interjections from this voice to tie the stories together a little intrusive, knocking me briefly out of the world of the novel. That didn’t last for long though – the rest of the world created here is so well described and inhabited, that I was soon back in the swing of things.

Overall, this is a good closing to a trilogy. The world, and the use of geology for magic are both interesting and well handled by Jemisin.

Review: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

In the lead up to the 2018 Nebula Awards, our sci-fi and fantasy guru Shaun Taylor reviews the nominees.

In 1920s Europe, the atmosphere was filled with the possibilites of revolution, and the sounds of the Cabaret. This time of intrigue and music have been captured by Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough.

Starting with a spy leaving his show business / smuggler lover, the intrigue and the tension of the period is slowly ratcheted in Donnelly’s alternate Weimar Republic.

Most of this action is based around Cyril DePaul, a spy reluctant to get back into the field, and his lover Aristide Makricosta, a theatre preformer of many skills.

Donnelly’s world is well realised, with its own slang and inner consistency. It is the factions and their names that I had trouble keeping track of. All seem to be lacking a basic motivation as well. However, given that this is being advertised as part 1 of a series, hopefully this will be realised in later volumes.

I do look forward to reading more of this series, and from the author more broadly. 

Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee

In the lead up to the 2018 Nebula Awards, our sci-fi and fantasy guru Shaun Taylor reviews the nominees.

In Jade City, Fonda Lee has created a wonder of a gangster action novel. Taking place in the city of Janloon – which feels like a Hong Kong of action movies – it tells of a war between two gangster factions, and of the control of Jade, which grants its user’s powers. 

Lee’s style is very visual, and I often found myself seeing this is in anime rather than motion. Action sequences are frenetic, with green magic being thrown and blocked by combatants. But this is not a world of super anti-heroes. What we have is a glimpse into a city that gets caught up in the war. There are business owners, government officals and small time hoods trying to survive or end the carnage that erupts in the city.

The main focus of the action is the Kaul family, rulers of one of the clans. This helps keeps the cast of characters down to the ‘must have a list of players’ that is often found in fantasy novels. Having said that, some of the minors characters seem a little underwhelming.

For readers not familiar with the tradition in some asian countries of placing the family name first, there could be confusion as you think all the family are called Kaul. However, the depth of Lee’s creation ensures this is soon forgotten.

As a person who spent their younger days watching Hong Kong films and anime, this novel is one of the best at grabbing the feel of these two genres. 

Review: Six Wakes By Mur Lafferty

In the lead up to the 2018 Nebula Awards, our sci-fi and fantasy guru Shaun Taylor reviews the nominees.

To start with, I will declare that I am regular listener to Mur Lafferty’s podcast “I Should Be Writing“.

In the future, the technology exists to “print” bodies – called clones – and to them imprint them with the recording of the host’s body. These recordings can be hacked and changed to suit a purpose. From this basic premise, Lafferty creates a murder mystery on a mulit-generational ship.

When a number of clones “wake” to discover their previous versions slaughtered, and no memory recordings for the last couple of decades, the tension in the ship increases. Each clone tries to learn not only who they are, but who they could become. This premise could easily have ended up as a version of the show “Dark Matters”, but Lafferty plays with her topic creatively.

She keeps the pace moving at a tense rate, with the occasional flashback character giving insight to motivations and events that do actually affect the outcome. What Lafferty does really well, is set up the logic and limitations of the technology and doesn’t move away from it, giving the narraration a greater sense of realism.

For me, the only drawbacks were the flashback chapters – much of the information could have been given by characters as the story progresses. Also by keeping the story on the craft, it would have added a sense of claustrophobia to novel.

Overall, a good book, and one that I will revisit if the opportunity presents itself.

Book Review: The View from the Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors that can make any other writer can blanch when comparing their own work with his. From novels and comic books, to even writing screenplay adaptations, he is a highly accomplished author and it would be no surprise if even more of his work was adapted into TV and film in the coming year – I’m already counting the days until American Gods premieres.

I’m breaking into a sweat even thinking about writing a review of of anything Gaiman has written – let alone a book collecting amongst other things his own reviews of other people’s work.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a typical Gaiman creation in that there’s a lot more to it than is evident on a quick peruse. This is one of those collections that you won’t necessarily want to read from from to back in one sitting, and nor do you need to given the varied content broken up into discreet sections. There are reviews of movies, discussions on relationships with other authors and artists, thoughts on science fiction and comics. For mine, the first section is one of the best: thoughts on the importance of libraries, bookshops and Halloween to name three topics. That said, Gaiman’s ability to engage works equally as well in the non-fiction realm and I haven’t been tempted to skip chapters on topics of little interest.

If you’re after a book of essays that are written with skill and passion, then definitely give The View From The Cheap Seats a go. If you’re looking for wild fantasy you won’t find it, but in its place you’ll fine something equally as satisfying.

 

Review: The Ellis Laws

ellis-lawsThere’s no shortage of stereotypes surrounding older people. A key one revolves around the idea that those over say, fifty, get very set in their ways and that this worsens with the passing of the remaining decades. Add to that the related claim that most old blokes turn into crusty old grumps who see little good about the future, and you have a pretty potent image of what Bob Ellis and The Ellis Laws might be about.

The trouble is, and perhaps this is because I’m the wrong side of forty myself, The Ellis Laws is probably one of the most cogent, incisive looks at modern society that I’ve read. Whether it’s the role of CEOs or the lack of sleep most of us suffer from there’s some very well argued positions that are very difficult to refute – at least from my male, over-40 viewpoint anyway. Ellis relishes the role of observer and it stands him in good stead throughout – there’s less overstatement than I expected and also an avoidance of glorifying the past too overtly. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Ellis puts forward an upbeat view, but he at least provides some building blocks on which he believes some positive changes could happen.

As the cover blurb puts so well, this is a small book that puts forward the “laws of life we always knew, but have not before now seen put in words”. Yes it’s meant to be irreverent, but that is only one aspect. There are some concepts discussed that force some pretty deep introspection, and that for me was the biggest reward this work generated.

You can buy the book for yourself here for the princely sum of $9.99. It’s ten dollars extremely well spent, and one of the few books this year that I’ll be handing on to others recommending they have a read also.

For transparency: I’m a big fan of Bob Ellis’ published works and I have previously written a review of his stage adaptation of Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (which I’ve also reviewed). After that review Mr Ellis kindly organised a lunch with myself and Bob Carr as a thank you. It was one of the most illuminating lunches of my sheltered life, but I don’t feel indebted to either Bob in any way and hope it hasn’t influenced this review in any way.

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