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A few more books down

So. I’ve been working on other things lately, hence the scarcity of blogging, and this bookshelf update will be a short one. I’ve just finished a couple of books, and I thought that I would mention them, just to get the fingers moving

Carnival by Elizabeth Bear.

I liked Blood and Iron and The Chains That you Refuse, but I have to admit that I stalled out on Worldwired. I’ll finish it eventually, but in the meantime, I decided to pick up Carnival, to see what Bear can do in a more free-wheeling science-fictional mode. The setting is in a pretty grim far future, where AI overlords unleashed by the far left have turned Earth into a pretty nasty place to live, where the unfit are Assessed, which is to say, instantly killed and recycled by their implants. All of this is somewhat peripheral to the action, though, at least as it concerns the story as it happens. It speaks pretty deeply to the character’s motivations, but it isn’t really the interesting part of the story, so I won’t much discuss it here.

The meat of the action involves two long-separated lovers, two homosexual males with names so distressingly long that I imagine Bear just typed VK and MKJ and searched and replaced them when it was time to submit the manuscript. They’re sent there on a mission by the powers that be on Earth to the deeply self-consciously named New-Amazonia, where women rule, men are chattel, etc. The world-building is pretty intense in places, but it’s somewhat uneven. Since our perspective is mostly (there’s a third, native, viewpoint character, but she doesn’t get as much time at the fore) outsider, we don’t get a whole lot of a feel as for what it’s like to be one of these people, with their starkly different mores and strange culture, and the carnival that names the book is strangely distant, essentially Mardi-Gras, and we never really get a feel for it. Those caveats aside, the main characters and what they’re doing are richly drawn and sharply plotted, and the sex scenes are lightly handled enough that they won’t squick anyone who doesn’t already have deeply seated issues. I thought that the ending was a little rushed, but overall I would recommend the book, and continue to look forward to Bear’s forthcoming work.

The Android’s Dream, by John Scalzi.

I enjoy Scalzi’s work, to an extent, although I think that his main line of novels lack some of the moral heft that I feel they should have, considering their subject matter. Also, I admit to some bigotry for SF that’s over-focused on planets, as Scalzi’s tends to be. But that’s neither here nor there. They’re quick and fun and breezily written with a sharp eye for human foibles and the humor inherent even in dark moments, of which there is no lack.

This book was lighter even than most of his others, though, and I came away a little bit unsatisfied. There were a few reasons, one of which is that the book hinges pretty strongly on some unlikely elements, like a race that relies on top down computer control of every little thing allowing another species entirely to design them a computer system to help do that work, and no one ever trying to hack or subvert it, or even get overly familiar with it. I didn’t really ring true. Also, the idea that in hundreds of thousands of years of galactic history, the idea that no one, ever, before humanity, would bother to try simulating a brain on a computer, it kind of absurd. Most of this takes place off-screen, so it doesn’t directly detract from the book, but they subtly undermine the impact of the resolution, which counts against it in the end.

The book is short, which I applaud in a non-snarky way, and it stands alone, which is also admirable. The characters are fun and interesting, although the main character is too much the self-effacing competent man to ever really come into his own as a character. The book moves along briskly, touching lightly on the emotional resonances of war and people’s general inability to deal with it after the fact. Overall, it’s more fun than anything else, and it doesn’t strive to be much else than fun. You could fault it for that lack of striving, I guess, but it would make you ill tempered and blind to many things.

The Jennifer Morgue, by Charlie Stross.

Another one in the tradition of The Atrocity Archives, this time a take of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Unfortunately, perhaps since the Fleming books are worse than the source material for the books that inspired Archives, this book, while interesting, hews perhaps too close, and gets too self-referential, which takes something out of the enjoyment, in the end. If you’ve read Archives (I suggest that you do, if you haven’t), you might be disappointed by this one, as I was, a little. Still fun, but I have the feeling that Charlie has a crackerjack book in this series that will out-shine these first two entries by an order of magnitude. Charlie is pretty good at his worst, and astonishing at his best. This is a pretty good book, which means that I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t really live up to the unfiltered Stross experience which I’ve come to expect.

Latro in the Mist & Soldier of Sidon, by Gene Wolfe.

Oh wow. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but Gene Wolfe is far and away one of my favorite authors. It is unlikely that I will ever escape from his influence in my own writing, although I could never hope to produce things as powerful. In these books, Wolfe follows a Roman soldier in Greece and later, Egypt, who has suffered a head wound and cannot remember for more than twenty four hours at a time. Thus he must write down everything in order that he might remember. The metafictional conceit here is that Wolfe has been given the scrolls by a friend to translate them, something similar to the metanarrative that enclosed the Book of the New Sun, although in those books, the narrator, Severian, has eidetic memory. There are a great many things that I would like to say here, but there’s so much to unpack, just from the one set of books, much less the two of them taken together. I might be here all night, and there are other things that I need to do. Just go out any buy them. Wolfe is our greatest author. You should have read them already. I should have read them already, but it’s better late than never. You might hold off on Sidon if you’re averse to a story left unfinished. The writing is brutally beautiful, no one makes it felt like Wolfe.

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