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.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Soldier of Sidon

Soldier of Sidon is the third novel by Gene Wolfe about Latro, an ancient warrior who loses his memory when he sleeps. Latro writes in his scrolls every day and reads when he wakes so that he can learn about his history. He is from Sidon, but is with a friend in Egypt searching for a way to regain his memory. This narrative technique provides for a curious sort of irony, where the reader's knowledge about the main character grows even as the character's memory keeps getting erased.

Latro and Muslak are traveling up the Nile on Muslak's ship on a mission from a king. They stop at a temple to hire two "river wives" for their trip. They bring others on the ship, including a healer who brings a sarcophagus containing a wax woman. Strange things start to happen when the wax woman begins to walk around the ship at night and a large cat talks to Latro. Mistrust breeds on the boat, but Latro is in the most precarious position, for even if he discovers something to trust or mistrust someone, he doesn't remember unless he writes it in his scrolls.

When a wealthy merchant joins the group telling of his missing son, they decide he might be found at the mines they are sent to investigate. There is a gap in the narrative, when Latro starts to write while a captive at the mines, and readers are left to fill in the missing parts.

As in many other Gene Wolfe novels, the characters are mysterious. I am reminded of The Sorcerer's House, an epistolary novel, albeit one in which the protagonist deliberately leaves out information. There is ambiguity about what happens in the story. However there is little in the way of conflict. The main focus is Latro's search for help restoring his memory, and the growing mystery of the happenings on the ship. It is barely enough to sustain a whole story. It is enjoyable mainly because the characters and the ancient lands evoke a great sense of ancient Egypt and its times. B+

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Monday, September 12, 2011

21 and the Aubrey/Maturin series

21 is the final, unfinished novel in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin naval series. The book itself is only a few chapters long and deals with Captain Aubrey's arrival at the east coast of South America to assume command of his flotilla. The story ends abruptly while Aubrey is reuniting with his family. There's no good sense of where the story was heading, so I will comment on the series as a whole.

What I remember most about the series are the great settings and the great dialogue. O'Brian did a great job creating a real sense of early 19th century sailing life. The naval terminology is an important part of it. We can see the life of the common sailor as well as the lords and officers. The dialogue is fantastic, for all the characters. It is enjoyable to hear the dialogue especially when it is read by Patrick Tull, the narrator for the audiobooks

I think the central nexus of the stories is the relationship between Captain Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin. Aubrey is the man of action, the Captain Kirk of the stories. Dr. Maturin is the cool naturalist (and when the plot needs it, the intelligence agent), the logical Mr. Spock. The interplay between the two men is one of the drivers of the plots, but it is also fun by itself.

The most exciting scenes are the action scenes, especially the chase scenes. The naval battles are exciting with all the firepower of the ships, and Aubrey's cunning. The chases are suspenseful as the reader anticipates each ship's next move, the suspense keeps building, and we wait for the final outcome. There were some less exciting installments in the series, but overal it is one of the best out there. I'd give the series an A-.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Surface Detail

Iain M. Banks has created an advanced galactic society in his Culture novels. The latest in the series is Surface Detail, and it deals with a fascinating concept as well as exciting action. In the Culture, death is merely an inconvenience. There is technology to transfer one's consciousness into machinery where one can interact in any conceivable virtual world. Consciousness can even be transferred back into a living body if one wishes, essentially bestowing a sort of immortality. This is not entirely novel in a science fiction setting, but Banks adds a twist: some societies decide to put the consciousness of their dead criminals in a virtual Hell. In these virtual worlds, torment is continuous, and virtual death only buys a short reprieve. There is eternal war in the hells.

The Culture is officially against the hell worlds but does not interfere in the matters of fellow socieites. Yet there is a war going on between the pro-Hell and anti-Hell factions, with the fate of the Hells in the balance. This war is entirely virtual, but one side has decided to break the rules and take the war into the Real.

The story starts when Lededje Y'breq, a sex slave in the Sichult society, is murdered by her owner. She wakes up in a virtual worlds light years away and is told that she had a brain implant that transmitted her consciousness to a distant ship at her death. Lededje requests a new body and transport back to her home world. The AI Mind that controls the ship acquiesces but, knowing she seeks revenge, insists that she take a drone to protect her--and keep her from harming anyone. Yet Lededje contacts the advanced warship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and its avatar to arrange for separate transport without a chaperone.

Like most of Banks's novels, this one contains AI Minds that are both powerful and entertaining. The Falling Outside is a ship with powerful technology and a flair for the dramatic. Indeed, the AI characters are often more interesting than the humn or alien characters. The ship and Lededje are close to another situation that is brewing: forces in the war over the Hells have arranged to use a large array of manufacturing facilities orbiting a gas giant to build millions of warships. And in order to provide a distraction, there is an outbreak of smatter, a sort of advanced nanobots or gray goo.

There are many other characters involved. There is a Queitus operative (a division in charge of the officially "dead" in the virutal world) who may or may not be working for Special Circumstances, the Culture's version of the CIA. There's Veppers, Lededje's owner who is the richest man in the system and a complete sociopath. Vatueil is an AI entity fighting in the war of the Hells, but on which side is a bit of a mystery. Then there are the grand locations: the huge ship that Lededje wakes up on, containing millions of people, the gas giant and its many facilities, an ancient space station that used to be the home of a vanquished species, now home to a mad AI.

My only complaint is that with all the strands in the story, not al come together. I was left wondering what happened to the smatter outbreak, or the ancient AI in the space station. But the main characters have good storylines and the plot comes to a satisfying conclusion. During all the fun, the reader is presented with questions of morality and mortality: when individuals can exist forever, what kind of fate is truly just? A-

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