Book Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral Book Cover The Peripheral
William Gibson
Science Fiction / Fantasy
Putnam Adult
October 28, 2014
PDF
496
Prix Aurora Award reader's package

Depending on her veteran brother's benefits in a city where jobs outside the drug trade are rare, Flynne assists her brother's latest beta-test tech assignment only to uncover an elaborate murder scheme. By the best-selling author of Zero History. 100,000 first printing.

Yes, yes, the Prix Aurora Awards are long over by now, but I wanted to still put up my review of William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It’s taken me a while to be able to sort out my thoughts on the book.

What is the outstanding “trend” in the book? (ie: outer space, aliens, dragons, elves, parallel worlds, etc):
I would say that parallel worlds sums this one up.

Is there a Message?:
Not really, I don’t think. It didn’t clobber me over the head with anything. If the message was that being poor sucks, well, we all know that’s true.

Any other genres incorporated into the book? Was it done well?:
This one seems to be straight-up science fiction/fantasy. Once I knew what was going on, it worked really well.

Is the “trend” realistic?:
Kinda? Will explain down below.

Was the book easy to get into?:
Oh hell no. I actually needed a glossary to finally understand what the hell I was trying to wrap my brain around.

Did you have to do any homework (pre-reading) to really understand the book?:
No previous books set in this world, no. At least, that I know of.

Was the world believeable?:
Once I figured out what I was reading? Possibly? The best way to describe how the worlds worked is to say that it’s like one future has the ability to play with alternate dimensions of the past the way that some of us play The Sims. The overarching plot after that (character sees a crime committed and has to provide evidence) is just gravy.

Were the characters believable?:
Yes. The characters were all very well realized. It’s one of Gibson’s main talents. Once you figure out which world you’re in and the world-building that surrounds it, the characters themselves are a treat.

What “problems” did you have with the book?:
There was a lot of slang. A lot of slang. Parts of the story are set in a world not too far ahead of us, and another that’s a few decades ahead of that. Apparently a lot changes in between those times, which made it hard for me to read the book without some form of translation.  So I looked up a helpful glossary online that told me what things meant without spoiling the story. Problem solved.

Actually, the site that I’ve linked as the glossary pretty well sums up my issues with the book right in the introduction. I was confused to the point that I almost put the book down a few times…and having that one or two extra bits of explanation really helped me to relax and enjoy it.

What did you like about the book?:
Once I understood what I was reading, I really did enjoy the story. As mentioned, it was a standard “protect the witness” plot, but with some really interesting twists. It also didn’t end the way that I thought it would…the few Gibson books I’ve read have had some really grim endings, and this one was surprisingly upbeat.

Last Thoughts:
Reading comprehension has never been a problem for me before this point. To be honest, Peter Watts’ books operate on a level that I have difficulty grasping. This one was worse. I’ve waded through medical journal text that was easier to understand. To be honest, I felt downright stupid for the first quarter to half of the book before I found the glossary and the little lightbulb went on. I really don’t like feeling that way, particularly when reading a book by an author that I admire. Some like the discovery that comes from being in the dark…I just felt like I was obviously too dim to understand what I was reading — which was a rather glum thought, and before finding the glossary, had me wishing I’d bought the  hardcover* so I could pitch it across the room with a satisfying thud.

I was very happy to find out that the fault really wasn’t with me, but the fact that Gibson seems to have gone out of his way to obscure the story. I suppose I might have been a little more good-natured about the whole thing if I hadn’t been on a very tight reading schedule at the time.

Do I recommend it?  Oh most definitely yes!  The story, once you get past the stumbling points, is wonderful. If you need the glossary, here it is again. My suggestion is the same as the glossary authors – don’t read it unless you find you need it. It’s very possible you’ll click with the story a lot sooner than I did.

 

* I’m still going to buy the book, though. It’s actually a really good story, so it will be going into The Library.

Book Review: Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Echopraxia Book Cover Echopraxia
Firefall #2
Peter Watts
Fiction
Macmillan
August 26, 2014
ePub
384
Prix Aurora Awards

It's the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it's all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.

Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat's-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he's turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out

 

Echopraxia is the third book that I have read of the five Best Novel (English) nominees for the Prix Aurora Awards. I did not purchase the book; it was a part of the award’s reader’s pack.

I will be purchasing a copy of Echopraxia to join our copy of Blindsight on the Husbeast’s office bookshelf.

♥ ♥ ♥

What is the outstanding “trend” in the book? (ie: outer space, aliens, dragons, elves, parallel worlds, etc):
Outer space. Vampires. Aliens. Science. Immersive Realities. Emerging Dystopia.

Is there a Message?:
There might have been. I’m still trying to parse it all.

Any other genres incorporated into the book? Was it done well?:
I think that “outer space” and “vampires” covers that question rather neatly. And yes, it was done rather well. I’m impressed.

Is the “trend” realistic?:
Watts has made his vampires a biological construct — a re-emergence of a prehistoric genetic code that had died off at a time when humanity needed to thrive. He’s also built science into humanity’s base fear of vampires. So….yes?

Was the book easy to get into?:
Since I had just read Blindsight, yes.

Did you have to do any homework (pre-reading) to really understand the book?:
Echopraxia is the second in a series, so yes, I would recommend reading Blindsight first. You can also, apparently, get the books as a collection titled “Firefall” if you don’t want to pick them up separately. Blindsight lays the base groundwork for the universe, and as its main character Siri Keeton and the Theseus mission are integral to the story, you’ll want to read it first.

Was the world believeable?:
Amazingly so.

Were the characters believable?:
Yes. The characters that we fully engage with are very well-rounded, and feel like complete personalities. There don’t appear to be any “throwaway” characters. They all have their place in the story.

What “problems” did you have with the book?:
If anything, my problems with Echopraxia were comprehension-related. I like science fiction. It takes me a while to work out the jargon. Due to the fact that the main character is a biologist, there is a lot of science to work through. It’s also very prevalent when it comes to scene-setting. Even though this book is only set about sixty to seventy years in the future, there are a lot of world changes that require explanation.

My only other criticism is that it felt like the book only started to “wake up” around the midpoint. Even though there seemed to be plenty of action, that’s where I started to feel the most engaged. Your mileage may vary, though…I needed more time to wade through the science, and I had to break my reading into bite-size chunks due to my Real Life schedule 🙂

What did you like about the book?:
I got comfortable with Dan Brüks. I came to imagine an older, curmudgeonly gentleman  scientist and former professor, suddenly caught up in a whirlwind of action and opinion. And Dan has plenty of opinions. Much like Siri Keeton of Blindsight, Dan seems to be in the dark about most of the motivations of his fellow travellers, though unlike Keeton, is prone to intense flashes of insight that take the reader along with him.

You could probably stick Harrison Ford into the role. Or maybe Last-Crusade-era Sean Connery, if you want a little extra “grump” (which I did…oh, goodness, I did). It’s possible that Dan isn’t in that age-range and I totally missed it, but that’s where I put him, and it worked.

The book deals with science, religion, loneliness and intimacy in ways that are subtle and changeable — from the perspective of a person who is very obstinate and stubborn. It puts him into some degree of conflict with just about every other character he meets. It makes Dan’s journey richer in some ways, frustrating in others. He’s given the nickname “Roach” early on in the book, and you never really know how apt it is until the story is complete.

Last Thoughts:
This is definitely one of my award contenders. The book was sometimes challenging (and thus frustrating!) to read, but it was worth the extra brain cells. The only huge drawback is that the story really isn’t complete without reading Blindsight first. You probably could go on without it…but it gives the story much-needed context. Unless you already own the first book, you might want to pick up the aforementioned Firefall.

Watts has also left a few doors open for a third book in the series. There are plenty of loose ends that are strategically untied that would allow a nice, neat trilogy to bring it all together. I’m pretty sure we’d pick it up if/when he does.

Book Review: Blindsight

Blindsight Book Cover Blindsight
Firefall
Peter Watts
Fiction
Macmillan
October 3, 2006
epub, paperback
384
ePub from Watts's website, paperback on the Husbeast's bookshelf.

It's been two months since a myriad of alien objects clenched about the Earth, screaming as they burned. The heavens have been silent since - until a derelict space probe hears whispers from a distant comet. Something talks out there: but not to us. Who to send to meet the alien, when the alien doesn't want to meet?

Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder, and a biologist so spliced to machinery he can't feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior, and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they've been sent to find - but you'd give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them..

A little fair warning here – I’m predisposed to like this book. The author, Peter Watts, is a distant acquaintance. We learned about him through a mutual friend, and hosted him at our home when he needed a bed to sleep in on a layover long, long ago. (If you’re reading this, Peter, I’m very sorry for the state of that house/room. If you ever need to crash again, the current house is in somewhat better order).

That said, while I’m biased towards Blindsight and enjoy a good Space Opera, it’s also in the realm of Hard Science Fiction. I can read science-y books, it just takes me forever. Gary Taubes‘s non-fiction opus Good Calories, Bad Calories took me ages, and not just because it quotes reams of medical jargon and scientific experiments. It’s also huge. Blindsight felt almost like wading through GCBC again. The difference is that after awhile, the scene-setting and jargon leech away into story — and then the science gets handed to you in mostly bite-size chunks. Much more manageable. There is a part of me, though, that still feels like I missed something in the translation. The book is like a roller coaster…you get started, feel a little doubt as the ride begins, relax into the excitement of the curves and turns, and when you get out of the ride — think you might want to try it again because you’re not sure just what you just experienced (yes, a run-on sentence. Deal).

Blindsight is good pre-reading for the Aurora-nominated Echopraxia, which is the second book in the series. Again…I’m not great with the hard science stuff. Sometimes Pratchett’s Discworld series is a challenge! The bonus to reading both books back-to-back? You stay involved in the world that Watts has built. For me, not having to switch my perspective on the world-building has been very helpful.

Blindsight is set in the late 21st Century. Imagine a world where genetic modification is normal, sex is no longer a contact sport, and you can decide to permanently “check out” of real life and into a virtual reality called “Heaven”. One day, as our main character, Siri and his father are returning from visiting his mother in “Heaven”, he experiences  the first sign of contact with an alien race. The world is surrounded by small craft that appear to take a picture of the Earth, then disappear. A mission is launched to attempt to track the source of the contact. Siri is chosen as one of the crew, responsible for ensuring that information is sent back to Earth in terms that humanity will understand.

The story takes place mostly on the ship, Theseus, with flashbacks to Siri’s personal life before the mission. We see he has been physically modified due to a childhood illness, his awkwardness dealing with people, and his utter helplessness at communicating with those he loves. Over time, we experience his confusion at the way his crewmates treat him – some seem friendly, but others tread the line of hostility.

His crew members are an interesting bunch, too. None appear to be “totally human”. Either they have implants for interfacing with computers, or they’ve spliced their personalities in order to gain a wider spectrum of knowledge and experience. There’s even a vampire.

Yes. A vampire in space.

I will say that as cheesy as space-faring vampires sound, Watts makes the concept work. He explains that they were a race from the Pleistocene that died out or became ultra-dormant due to the fact that one single vampire could chew through a significant portion of their food supply (pun intended). Gene therapy and experimentation brought the species back, and they have qualities ideal for space travel. In fact, in order to go into a deep enough slumber to survive a long space flight, crew members must have vampiric genes that can be triggered. Watts explains the vampire’s intolerance of crosses (right angles) in an interesting way — I recommend discovering it for yourself.

The group finally make contact…and it isn’t what anyone was expecting. It is obvious that Watts has thought long and hard about what an alien race might be. We usually take it for granted that it will be a carbon-based lifeform like ourselves – two arms, two legs, a head… Watts doesn’t give you that comfort. The sense of the unknown is furthered by the fact that our crew is confronted with an entity that they can’t hope to understand in the time they have been given.

If you have a head for hard SF and like a good story, I definitely recommend Blindsight. If you want to read the story but can’t afford a hard copy at this time, you can pick up an epub at his website. I definitely recommend having the paperback, though. We got ours at the local Chapters, but you can also pick one up online from Amazon (specific e-reader links are in the synopsis above!). I believe in helping authors make their mortgage payments 😉

Book Review: My Real Children by Jo Walton

My Real Children Book Cover My Real Children
Jo Walton
Science Fiction
Tor Books
May 20 2014
ePUB
320
Prix Aurora Award Package

It's 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. "Confused today," read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know-what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don't seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War-those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history; each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. Jo Walton's My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan's lives...and of how every life means the entire world.

 

My Real Children is the first book out of the five Prix Aurora Awards nominations for Best Novel. I finished it in one day of reading. I did not purchase the book; it was included in the voter’s package for the Auroras.

What is the outstanding “trend” in the book? (ie: outer space, aliens, dragons, elves, parallel worlds, etc):
Alternate Universes — Jo Walton shows us the two lives of the same woman after she makes a major decision in her life.

Is there a Message?:
It sure felt like it to me. I’m a little confused as to what it was, though. I don’t want to give away the book, but it felt like one decision punishes the main character personally while the world they live in thrives, and the other decision gives personal happiness at the expense of the main character’s world going to hell in a handbasket.

Any other genres incorporated into the book? Was it done well?:
Although the book was working with Alternate Realities, it really felt more like Women’s Fiction or Literary Fiction to me. It was a good read, don’t get me wrong, but not something I would generally reach for.

Is the “trend” realistic?:
Only halfway? I’ll get into that later.

Was the book easy to get into?:
Actually, yes. It was very engaging, right from the start. A huge part of that is the storytelling. The other, much much smaller part was the file format. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, ePUB reads very, very nicely on my Kobo.

Did you have to do any homework (pre-reading) to really understand the book?:
Nope. If the book is part of a series, I’m not aware of it.

Was the world believeable?:
Not in my eyes, but again, I’ll get into that below.

Were the characters believable?:
Yes, to a certain extent. It felt like there were characters that had been given a lot of development, and a few characters that were almost caricatured.  Again, I’ll get into that…below.

What “problems” did you have with the book?:
Welcome to “below”.
Problems, I have many.

 I have a hard time believing that the choice of whether or not you “marry the guy” would lead to the sweeping world changes seen in each reality in the book. Neither reality is set in our current timeline (there are references to J.F.K. in the book that support this). The world changes would suppose that *everyone* is making alternate decisions along the way, not just the main character. If I could believe that, I could believe that my decision to take piano lessons directly affected the fall of the Berlin Wall. I guess my faith in Chaos Theory just isn’t that strong.

 A character who is so closeted that he lives his life in misery to the point where he closes himself off to almost every single person in his life. He even goes the extra mile to be excessively verbally and mentally abusive. While I’m sure that these folks exist, the world he lives in is increasingly more and more liberal. I find it hard to believe that he couldn’t come to terms with himself and his liberal family in order to attain some glimmer of personal happiness. It’s like the character just exists to be an asshole and a burden on the main character.

 Some secondary characters feel like placeholders so you know what era it is. The kid who knows computers, the guy who dies from AIDS…just felt a little too stereotypical and shoehorned in for my tastes.

 Everyone turns against you when you’re old.  The children that we’ve seen Patricia raise throughout both timelines seem like a bunch of greedy little gits by the end of the book. And when Patricia is shown to have a medical problem, they get offended and treat it like a moral issue that Granny really can’t remember that X Event occurred. I’ve seen some skeevy family politics in my time, but I couldn’t point to a single redeeming member of either family by the end of the book.

 No real resolution at the end of the book. We get to see the two timelines, but the resolution is…vague. Or maybe I’m just not insightful enough to intuit it.

What did you like about the book?:
Practically seamless world building. It helped that there was a lot of exposition every time you jumped between realities, but the world building was cumulative.

I also liked that the author was able to tell two complete life stories in approximately 320 pages. That’s pretty impressive. You get to know both versions of Patricia fairly well, and explore the world from her eyes in two very different ways.

Last thoughts?:
I got to the end and the only thing that crossed my mind was “Huh. I guess that’s that.”

I was vaguely unsatisfied because the story was…well…kind of a memoir. It was a book of quiet reflection on the lives of two identities who were the same person (if you can follow that). There were peaks and valleys, yes, but nothing that I could discern as a solid story structure. It would be different if Patricia had woken up one day in her nursing home and a (singular) friendly person from both pasts was there to help her on her journey to Her One True Self. We could have the standard hero’s journey of hijinks and misadventure, coupled with the fact that our heroine is in her 90’s and has a memory like a sieve.  Instead, Patricia gets old and reflects on the two pasts that she has solid memories of living before the end of her days. Huh.
Maybe it’s just me, and maybe this is why I don’t generally read women’s fiction. :-/

I’m not saying I didn’t like the book. Just that it was far too easy to pick up the next one and start reading. I definitely recommend it, but I don’t think it’s my Aurora pick.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One Book Cover Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
Science Fiction
Crown
2011
374

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the  OASIS. Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win—and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.

About a year ago, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t reading enough fiction. I’d plink away at a Terry Pratchett novel for a bit, but almost always went back to loading up on a bunch of non-fiction. I get weirdly obsessive, I’ll admit. The Other Half has to remind me, every so often, to take a fiction break.

We went window-shopping at The Mall this weekend and I had a chance to stop in at Indigo. I came out with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I’d heard good things about it online.

I devoured it in one day.

Ready player one
Apparently I ran out of tea and didn’t notice. This never happens.

The story is set in a near-future dystopia. The wage gap is severe, and an energy crisis has caused the population to crowd to the big cities. Online gaming has evolved to an immersive utopian experience known as “OASIS”, and most of humanity spends its time jacked into the system. One of the founders of OASIS has left an easter egg in the programming that will allow a lucky explorer to inherit his entire legacy. The trick is that the founder was obsessed with the 1980’s culture of his teen years. To go forward on the quest, participants will need to know the 80’s intimately.

We see the story unfold from the point of view of Wade, a teenage Egg Hunter (or “gunter”). He uses OASIS to attend school, socialize, and get away from the grim reality he would otherwise have to experience. His online name is “Parzival”, and we follow him on his personal grail quest.

My own teen years straddled the mid 80’s to the early 90’s, so this was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. I get references to 80’s movies and music. I remember many of the different early computers and devices mentioned.

As a sidebar, my grandfather was a Ham Operator and early-adopter of technology. He gave us a Vic 20 with a tape drive so that we could play Frogger. I know he had one in his Ham Shack that he claimed was for translating Morse Code, but the plain fact was that he was so fluent at code that he would translate entire paragraphs before the program even started chewing through the dots and dashes.  So he, essentially, bought us two computers on which to play Frogger. One at our house and one at his.

I was also caught up in the early 2000’s World of Warcraft MMO culture. We would spend hours logged in, questing, raiding, and socializing. I still play occasionally, though I’ve mostly gone back to good-old antisocial single-player Sims. That said, I can see a future where an analog of Second Life takes over and becomes the worldwide GUI for commerce and entertainment. And as in the book, I can see that whoever takes over that GUI would, at its essence, control the world economy.

I think one of the things that amuses me most is how the author has blended the past, present, and future into his novel. Yes, there’s the obsession with 80’s culture and the overwhelmingly dismal future, but there are pieces of the present in there. Characters blog, marathon-watch TV shows, and shop. These are all things that we do now. People meet, fall in love, and marry online. They do that now. The future of Cline’s novel isn’t so far away that we can’t be a part of it now, even though we don’t have the hardware to fully wire ourselves into the internet.

The takeaway message that this is a possible outcome if we don’t get our heads out of the sand and look up once in a while is powerful. And every time you think that our hero, Wade, is getting it under control, the stakes go up.

I definitely recommend giving Ready Player One a read. And read it in hard copy. There’s a weird kind of irony, I think, if you read it on electronic media.