You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Letter of Marque

The Letter of Marque is the twelve novel in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. Jack and Stephen take the Surprise, formerly a ship of the Royal Navy, on a new mission as a privateer. Jack has been discharged from the service due to a politically motivated conviction in a war profiteering case. He commands the Surprise with Tom Pullings as his first mate, and other men who have served under him before.

In their first voyage out, they capture the privateer Spartan after a long search and a fierce battle. Then they successfully impersonate the Spartan and signal the ships she has captured to come out of their safe port, taking them one by one. Jack and Stephen return to England much richer with all the prizes.

Stephen attempts to help Jack get reinstated to the navy, but Jack refuses to ask for a pardon on the grounds that it would be admitting his guilt. Jack learns that his father has died, and goes to his father's home for the funeral. His young stepmother (whom he had once bedded earlier in life) stays in her bedroom. He meets old friends and sees his young half-brother, who spends most of his time at boarding school. One of the old friends offers Jack his father's seat in Parliament. This would help his dealings with the government, and guarantee his reinstatement.

Jack takes the Surprise back out in anticipation of capturing the French navy frigate Diane. He meets his former lieutenant Babbington, and with his help, manages a daring capture of the Diane while she is in port in St. Martin's.

Later, as Jack takes the Surprise into the Baltic, Stephen takes a passage on the Leopard to Sweden to find his estranged wife Diana. After stopping at a pharmacy to get some opium, he finds Diana and they have a friendly reunion. But Stephen ends up taking too much of the opium because his assistant had been stealing the ship's opium and diluting it. He ends up carried to the waiting Surprise, and Diana boards with him.

This book has a good blend of action and personal story. Jack gets to spend time with his wife Sophie and Stephen gets to reunite with his wife Diana, who he has agonized over for two and a half books. We get insight into Jack's character as he deals with his discharge from the navy, his new role as privateer captain, and his father's death. There is not as much action as most of the stories, though the suspense is still there during the long search for the first privateer. It's great to see Stephen reconcile with Diana. And there's also more plot development with Stephen and his intelligence activities. I'll give it an A-.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is somewhat of a follow-up to his book Snow Crash, which I loved. It takes place in the late twenty-first century, when nations have given way to phyles, tight associations of people with similar culture and economy. Nanotechnology has created massive wealth, but it is not distributed evenly. The world economy is kept together through the Common Economic Protocol, which governs relations between people and organizations.

John Hackworth is a neo-Victorian and a nanotech engineer in Atlantis, an engineered island near Shanghai. He is approached by equity lord Finkle-McGraw to create a primer for his granddaughter. He wants to give her the kind of education he feels her too-conventional parents cannot provide. The primer would be an interactive, in-depth experience, using complex AI encoded in paper pages. The voices are performed by a ractor, a person reading the script across the network, because voice recreation is too complex to get right with technology.

Hackworth goes across the border into the Celestial Kingdom to visit Dr. X, a Chinese mobster and hacker, to make an illicit copy of the primer for his own daughter. Dr. X has a private source of the Feed, the source of nanotech raw materials. On his way home, Hackworth is robbed and the primer is stolen. A boy named Harv takes the book and gives it to his little sister Nell. Nell and Harv live with their mother, who neglects them and lets her boyfriends abuse them.

As Nell starts to read the primer, it takes elements from her life and incorporates them into the story. The primer tells about Princess Nell and her brother Harv, who lose their father and their stepmother locks them in a castle. There she finds four friends, who are named after Nell's four stuffed animals. They help her destroy the trolls of the castle. Later, Nell escapes, but Harv is locked inside the castle and the twelve keys are scattered throughout the land, and Nell has to quest to find them.

Hackworth is arrested by Judge Fang, who is working with Dr. X, for dealing in stolen intellectual property. Dr. X has rescued hundreds of thousands of baby Chinese girls, and wants the primer to help raise them. Hackworth is sentenced to serve ten years, and agrees to provide Dr. X with more copies of the primer. Hackworth travels to North America for Lord Finkle-McGraw, where he ends up in an underwater cavern for ten years, communing with others through nanosites that network with the brains of the nearby people. He is assigned by Dr. X to seek the Alchemist.

Nell gets older, and she and Harv leave home. She ends up in a community of people who make things by hand instead of with nanotechnology. She enrolls in a special school for girls, though she keeps using the primer. Harv goes away to keep the authorities away from her. Meanwhile, Miranda, the ractor who has been reading the parts of the characters for Nell's primer, becomes more attached and involved. She goes on a mission to find Nell.

Hackworth leaves the commune after ten years and travels to London after picking up his daughter Fiona. There he engages with more people via nanosites and discovers that he is the Alchemist. Through the power of the networked brains, he is the one who is capable of designing the Seed, a technology more advanced than the Feed that can grow items instead of manufacturing them. The big powers see the Seed as a threat to the stability of the Feed, but Dr. X sees it as a way for the Chinese to achieve a Chinese version of stable wealth.

Princess Nell learns about defense, magic, and technology as she retrieves the twelve keys. The keys are scattered throughout the last kingdom again, and she must solve the puzzles of castles to retrieve them again. They are all Turing machines, and she learns how to program them. Along the way, the mouse army she finds follows her. When she solves the final puzzle, the mouse army comes to her to be released from their spell. She casts the spell to release them, and they turn into hundreds of thousands of Chinese girls ready to do her bidding.

In the real world, Nell goes to Pudong to work as a writer for ractives. Dr. X's army, the Red Fists, destroy the feed lines and take over the city. Nell is captured but manages to escape with the help of the Chinese girls. They help people escape from the city, then Nell goes down underwater tunnels to find Miranda, her surrogate mother, whom she saves from the nanosites and takes her to Atlantis.

The story is complex and interesting. At times I was wondering how the different threads would come back together. The characters are compelling, especially Nell, whom we see grow up into a strong woman despite her adversities. Stephenson's writing style is dynamic and fast-paced. The world he creates is fascinating, especially nanotechnology. It is interesting to see not only what the tech can do but also what it can. The tech can provide simple items and food from public matter compilers. It is the source of great wealth, but it is concentrated in the hands of a few. The masses still go without. Many don't even get an education. Violence is rampant for those who do not live in protected claves. The world is really more of a dystopia than a utopia.

I enjoyed how the theme of motherhood played out. Nell's mother is virtually nonexistent, much like Princess Nell's stepmother. Miranda becomes a surrogate mother through teaching her for years. And Nell becomes a sort of mother leader to the Chinese girls who interact with her through their own version of the primer. It provides a neat thematic parallel.

The cultures of China and the neo-Victorians provide a good contrast. They both have their mores, traditions, and rituals. But the Chinese have an ancient, almost mystical, connection with the earth. Nanotechnology is incompatible with their culture. The neo-Victorians are almost morally empty, chasing after wealth and power. Overall, the book is an A-, and definitely recommended.