Thursday, August 15, 2019

Let's Look at a Bunch of Books (I Didn't Finish)

So I've had my Kindle for a few months now and boy howdy do I have some REVIEWS for you all. Mostly partial, because I have embraced the gospel of Did Not Finish.

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey

DNF, pg. 78/169

What a disappointment. My favorite episode of the Dollop, turned into an alternate history novella? Sign me up! But the end result is a boring, chutzpahless affair. It takes nearly half the book to get the team together, and maybe one of those team members exists beyond a lackluster physical description and a minor gimmick. Definitely should have opened with everyone already together.

Pacing, characters, and bizarrely boring hippos aside, the thing that killed it for me was that the core conceit, the importing of hippos to the Gulf Coast for meat with completely predictable failure, is the least interesting of the alt-history elements.

The timeline in the back has no mention of the Civil War, and twenty-teens views on sex and gender abound even in hippo-infested 1880s Louisiana backwoods. I want to know how we got there. Hippos be damned, tell me about how abolition took root way earlier, or how the Second Great Awakening brought with it the sexual revolution, or what downright apocalyptic cultural change the South went through. Those are big, interesting ideas and they are completely ignored.

It reminds me of 5e worldbuilding, to a T. Needed more LeGuin and less Firefly.

No sleep till hippo.

Quantum Thief, Fractal Prince, Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaneimi


The Jean le Flambeur trilogy has gone right onto my shelf of "really good science fiction." It's got a whole lot going for it. The setting is immensely creative and full of bizarre far-future societies The future-shock dies down over time with context clues and easy-to-grok explanations, and I never lost my bearings once I figured things out. The pace is swift without sacrificing detail or breathing space (the longest of the three installments is 328 pages), and it's clear that the story was written as a whole to start - the arcs flow together smooth as silk. Most importantly, for a book all about posthuman gods, the characters are still relatable and understandable. I enjoyed spending time with all of them. The tech can get very close to "okay this is basically just magic now", but it's part of the territory.

When I talk about posthumans in Mothership, from now on it will be invoking those found in this series. It's touchstone-level good.

Unsouled, Will Wight

DNF after two chapters.

Remember the opening sequence of Avatar? Katara and Sokka are out fishing and get into an argument and bicker because they're siblings and Sokka's being a jackass? There's like two sentences of exposition about waterbending there and one of them is Sokka dismissing it as something he has heard a million times before and doesn't care about.

Take that scene, and the scenes to follow, and replace all the character establishment and fun interaction with exposition of the magic and you will have something that approaches Unsouled: a magical vaguely-east-Asian land filled with a magic system the author can't wait to tell you about.

Every single sentence in those first two chapters spoken by a character, any character, has to do with the magic system. It was like reading the novelization of a wiki page. To damn with the faintest wisp of faint praise, I would consider reading that wiki page. But not six novels of it.

I tried reading another Will Wight story I had, from another of his series, and found that this is an endemic trait to his work. Would not recommend to anyone.

Accelerando, Charles Stross

DNF at 21%

The transhuman future, as envisioned in 2005. A cavalcade of technobabble that succeeds at disorientating and alienating the audience, but that's not necessarily a good thing in this case. It jumps forward and back over the border of incoherence and the characters are not nearly compelling enough to carry the story beyond that. There's a terrible BDSM scene in it.

The Red Plague, Jack London


Hey, did you know that Jack London wrote a post-apocalyptic novella about a plague that wipes out nearly all of the human population sometime in the twenty-teens? He did, and its pretty solid stuff. Has that fun mix of being very spot on for the future (America ruled by a tiny group of impossibly wealthy individuals? Global population of around seven billion? Yep, got them both) with some turn of the century-isms (still using silver dollars) plenty of that American Lit class naturalism to go around. Very short, free, bit a of a shake-up in the diet.

Of Sheep and Battle Chicken, Logical Premise

DNF at chapter 22

Recommended to me by Jack Tatters / swampgirl, this is a Mass Effect fanfic that went just a touch too far up its own butt. That's an uncharitable take, honestly, as it has a lot of things going for it - it does a decent job of portraying the setting as darker without adding or changing much at all, just bringing the slavers, pirates, PMCs, militarist conspiracies, extrajudicial-authority-having-space-marines and inadequate government

The issue is Shepard - a character presented as both a woman supposed to be completely broken by horrific trauma, and a one-liner dropping badass. The incongruity is omnipresent, and it is exacerbated by how other characters seem to just go along with her (as they would in the game proper) despite this going against any sane person's reaction to someone who is that single-mindedly murderous. Which is sad, as most of the other characters are pretty well-realized.

But the author drank too deep of the well of dark and edgy: there's a whole lot of "terrible things done because they need to be" without ever questioning or working to fix the underlying issues that led to those scenarios turning violent in the first place. Female characters are threatened with sexual violence on a depressingly regular basis. There's a fanfic-BDSM relationship between Shepard and Liara which looms like an approaching mountain of do-not-want. I am grateful the author gave forewarning in the introduction, but the idea of "huge nerd entering first major relationship" getting down with "mass-murdering emotionally-dead constantly-traumatized individual who has raped at least two other women, this is explicitly stated in chapter 7" is a red flag so huge that it should be seen from space. (I put down the story before it reached this point, but I had lost any faith the outcome would be something I wanted to read or recommend.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon


A book of ideas rather than plot, and for its time pretty on the ball about space science - in some ways it's on the ball more than a lot of modern space science with things like wide-scale stellar engineering and the scale of deep time. Features a sapient species of boats, among some other really creative aliens. Very good for inspiration, though it can drag at times with descriptions of successive tiers of increasingly vast complex things beyond our comprehension.

I'd love to see a modern version of it, really. A nice Sagan-helming-Cosmos version would be * chef's kiss *.

Worm, John McCrae

DNF at 11%

I was super invested to start, despite it being two genres (superheroes and teen drama) I am not normally huge on. I loved how it explored the consequences of powers and a world of people with powers. But the sheer amount of extra chaff made me lose steam - the thing's over five thousand pages, paced more like a TV show than a prose story.

Fights are like reading text conversions of Stand battles in JoJo, interrupted by lengthy descriptions of bizarre costumes and asides detailing powers in depth. All the creative usage in the world can't save pacing like that - it's just the wrong medium for it. TV show it would work fine. Pared down text with hyperlinks to a wiki? Perfect. But not straight prose.

I might return to this in the future, or just read a plot summary on the wiki.

Several Conan short stories by Robert E. Howard

Finished 1/3

The good ideas to racism ratio is skewed terribly out of whack. I like Fafhrd and Mouser much better.

Foreigner, C. J. Cherryh


Best implementation of drow I've ever seen. The opening sequence is somewhat jarring with multiple major timejumps, but this was apparently a request by the publisher and not the original plan. Does a fantastic job wrestling with an alien mindset and what follows from it.

Dawn, Octavia Butler


Gold standard material. The oankali are properly alien in a way that I can't find any easy comparison to in anything else I have read - they operate upon a logic that humans simply cannot grasp - we see what they are doing, we know even to an extent why they are doing it, but there is this gulf between the two species that can't be bridged no matter how good they become at communicating. There are just these two incompatible forces colliding and there's nothing either side can do to soften the blow. It's horrifying and tragic and a damn good read.

Time and the Gods, Lord Dunsany


I don't know if the kind of fantasy Dunsany wrote still really exists any more, but this collection certainly made me want it to. While a few of them are lackluster (I found the longer works to border on intolerable) and the high language can lose you, his mythmaking is on point for the whole. Personal favorite is the story of the king who laid seige to Time's castle, and whose army was assaulted by hours and years until they all went home as old men. Don't see stuff like that much anymore.

Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald

DNF at 30%

You could steal the setting for a Mothership game, whole cloth. The Moon is a harsh mistress and built on terrifying economic disparity (imagine having an AR counter of your oxygen and water budget in the corner of your eye, forever), all that good stuff, but all the narrative focus is on the corporate nobles and their inter-house warfare and family drama, sans any proletariat hordes breaking down their habitat airlocks and getting their revolution on.

There are three books to follow, so maybe that does happen, but when I'd rather that all the characters were dead, I'm not going to stick around and find out.

The King In Yellow, Robert Chambers


One downright haunting short story, three solid spooky stories, and then a collection of indiscernible romance stories that aren't spooky at all. It's downright bizarre - all the good parts are frontloaded and it seems like a different manuscript got shoved in there at the end. Which paradoxically becomes something of a benefit, I think.

I actually like Carcosa and the Yellow King more than the normal Lovecraft stuff when it comes to raw horror, precisely because Chambers explains jack shit. It's a meme, constantly mutating in every use afterwards, worming into the mind and gestating into a new mutant form to spread and survive. It's the effective use of the "throw in random words, describe nothing" method of horror.

"Repairer of Reputations" is by far the strongest story in the book precisely because it leans into this uncertainty. Is Carcosa real? Is this man just crazy? Is the king exerting influence on the world, turning it into a fascist hellscape, or is that just a purely human affair?

Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys

In-progress, 240/362

A while back I said I needed to read this book, and my gut was correct. I love it. Like The Ballad of Black Tom (which I also read an adored), it revitalizes what is often terribly old and stale not by changing it drastically, but by pulling back and looking at it from a different angle.

I've gabbed enough about my love for this particular subgenre (recontextualized Lovecraftiana? Cosmic humanism?) that to continue in this review seems a bit redundant. It's good. I want more of it. And not just with Lovecraft, either: people should do it with whatever they can get their hands on. (I'd love to see this applied to something like John Carter, and certainly Conan). Retelling lets the good ideas get polished and the bad ones fall to the wayside. I also love the little touches Emrys adds to make it her own - offhand references to species the yithians have dealt with in Earth's far future, the everyday cultural aspects of the Innsmouth folk, all that. good stuff.

There are a few too many characters to juggle so far, but it gives me a shot of that Shape of Water goodness, which is well worth a few minor hiccups.

I didn't realize this until just now, writing this review, that the copy I picked up was signed. Well I'll be damned.

12 comments:

  1. If I had a summer vacation, this would be what I read during it.

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  2. Seconded on the Jean Le Flambeur trilogy. Sobornost haunts my daydreams.

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    1. And you think the Zoku might be a little bit better but WHOOPS.

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    2. Yeah that was a good one... I'm always a big fan of war between hyperpowers that are all horrible and terrifying but fundamentally incompatible

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    3. And despite their posthuman god status it's still just unbearable nerds vs rich assholes. Gave it a real sense of relatable humanity.

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  3. I got many hours into Worm before I gave up. Every battle sort of seemed just like the last, but with a bigger badder foe. And fuck me did they start to last a LONG time.

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  4. I'll read "Starmaker" someday. I did really enjoy "Last and First Men" a few years ago. It's not just the grandeur, it's the humanism, I suspect.

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  5. I also bounced off Accelerando, but enjoyed the first few Laundry novels by the same author a lot more.

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  6. I admit that accelerando, despite being kind of short, is a bit of a "dense" read, but I think if you stopped at ~20%, you missed when it started getting really good! It's been too long since I've read it to remember why the BDSM scene is "bad" and I think I read it before I was involved in the kink scene, but anyway, I would definitely recommend you give it another chance! When I first started reading it, I thought it was the most generic cyberpunk thing ever, but it ends up heavily subverting that expectation, as the plot, tech level, everything, in a very literal sense exponentially accelerates. It's one of my favorite singulary / trans-human / "post-cyberpunk" / [insert pretentious label here] books ever!

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  7. I need to actually read King in Yellow in the near future.

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  8. Just read the wiki and plot summaries on Worm. It's a wild ride, but a much better worldbuilding endeavor than a proper story IMHO. Definitely plenty of stealable stuff for supers games, but the story proper involves dragonball levels of escalation and some truly unfollowable plot threads without a wiki and several dozen-page forum threads to follow along.

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    1. I think that'll be the best course of action.

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