Review: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

TL;DR; If you like the humour of Monty Python, you’ll really enjoy this book. If, however, you are looking for a book about Monty Python, you’ll be disappointed. This is Eric Idle’s story, which wouldn’t be complete without Monty Python, but it is also much more than that. I came across this book by accident and what a happy accident it was.

The story of this book and my relationship with it would be incomplete without “the tweet”.

Eric Idle Calls Me a Cunt

Yes, Eric Idle called me a cunt.

I’m still not quite sure why. I mean, I am merrily reading along and he’s talking about his retreat in Provence. By this point in the book his fame has caused his orbit to cross paths with pretty much everyone who was anyone at the time, and he’s managed to make friends with a lot of famous people. He’s writing about his eccentric neighbor with a wheelbarrow that uses a ball instead of a wheel (ballbarrow?) who turns out to be James Dyson.

Of course he is.

So, as part mental exercise and part futile effort to show my friends how clever I am, I decide to guess a famous person one wouldn’t usually associate with Monty Python that Idle will inevitably meet. I chose Stephen Hawking (who, by the way, shows up on page 238).

I didn’t think much of it and went to bed, and when I woke up I saw his reply. In a way it was kind of funny. I imagine Idle at his home in LA, feeling a little lazy after having eaten dinner, pulling out his phone and taking offense, but that sneaky autocomplete jumped in and turned “cunt” to “count”.

Idle is English, so technically one would be an Earl and not a count, but for some reason the wife of an Earl is still a Countess, go figure. I decided to have some fun with it, so for the next 31 days I will be known as “Count Balog”, complete with the Eastern European pastiche accent (à la the character on Sesame Street). My tweets autodelete when they are 31 days old so this too shall pass.

I came across this book entirely by accident. Where I live in North Carolina we have seen an obscene amount of rain this year, nearly double the average, including two hurricanes. Hurricane Florence damaged the Biography section of the Wren Memorial Library in Siler City, and they asked for help replacing the damaged books through an Amazon wishlist. Near the top of that list was this book.

Now Siler City has seen better times, and it is best known for being the final home of Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show (after she died Andrea was involved in rescuing the cats she left behind, but that’s another story). It is also home to a bunch of hard working people who have been duped into voting against their own self interest. I found it a moral imperative to replace this book, even though I had not read it, because I knew the viewpoints expressed would be counter to, say, Fox News. I bought it and sent out a tweet, and Eric Idle was kind enough to comment on it (without elevating me to royalty) and I believe that caused a few more people to contribute. I am grateful for that.

About a month later I found myself at Flyleaf Books, which is my favorite local independent bookstore, when I saw a copy of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. I bought it and put it in the queue of things to read.

Now I have been a Python fan since the late seventies. I can’t remember who introduced me to their work, but I believe it started when the DM for the Dungeons and Dragons group I was in started talking in a Pepperpot voice as one of his characters (yes, I liked Monty Python and D&D in the South. Oh how the young ladies flocked to me). We devoured all things Python and Python adjacent. When cable television arrived I recorded The Rutles onto VHS and wore the tape out. We made cassette copies of all the albums, having to struggle a bit with the second side of Matching Tie and Handkerchief to get both sides recorded. In high school, when my friend David and I were cutting up in social studies class, the teacher Jackye Meadows called us on it so we immediately launched into singing “Sit on My Face”. She didn’t know what to think of it, but being very cool she let us slide.

Well, enough foreplay, let’s talk about the book.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life Book

Billed as a “sortabiography” the book begins and ends with a song, namely “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” which was the closing tune of The Life of Brian. I can remember seeing the movie in the theatre, and the song gave me an earworm for weeks. Monty Python was known for not finishing things. Skits would abruptly end, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail just ends with everyone getting arrested. It was surprising to actually have some sort of ending to a Python movie, and a rather good one at that. This song is the thread that holds the book together.

There are several arcs within this book. Like any autobiography it starts when the author is young and, in this case, comes pretty close to present day by the end. One arc involves Monty Python, of course. One follows the numerous friendships he made over the years and their impact on his life, and still another follows his relationship to his family. The three combine to show how Idle grew as both a person and an entertainer over decades.

Idle’s childhood was far from idyllic, but he managed to cope. I really identified with his story about leaving boarding school to see movies in town by simply walking out the front door like he had every right. It’s how I find clean toilets in Europe. I pick the fanciest hotel nearby and walk in like I own the place. I’ve never been stopped or even questioned, and often someone will even hold the door to the hotel open for you.

In trying to understand why my tweet pissed him off, I read some reviews. The second most critical comment is that the book doesn’t contain enough Python. Well, right there on page 39, at the start of Chapter 7, is a whole paragraph about how so much stuff has already been written about Monty Python. What more needs to be said? This book is more about how Python played a role in Idle’s life versus a history of that show. And what it did was make him a celebrity.

The number one complaint, and I believe the source of his ire toward me, is that he mentions a lot of celebrity names. Apparently it bothered some people. It didn’t really bother me, because, seriously, who do celebrities hang out with outside of other celebrities? They are the only ones who can understand how celebrity affects one’s life, regardless of if it comes from music, acting, art, or even comedy. I found the rapid-fire stories of meeting famous people, ingesting various substances, jetting off to amazing places and shagging models kind of gave me a glimpse of what his life must have been like, especially in his younger days.

I couldn’t help but think as he was talking about all the temptations he yielded to, which often involved intimacy with beautiful young women, “What about his wife? Isn’t he married at this point?”

He soon addressed that. His son Carey was born in 1973 just before Grail and before The Rutles. In a chapter entitled “The Divorce Fairy” he owns up that his marriage to Lyn was ending just as 1976 was arriving and that it was primarily his fault. While he never really alludes to his current relationship with her, he does obviously care for his son who remains a fixture throughout the book. By the next chapter his talks about “growing up” at age 33 and meeting his second (and current) wife Tania. From what I read in the book Tania’s only flaw seems to be poor taste in men (much like my wife Andrea) and she even likes German Shepards.

Things seem to settle down a bit after he meets Tania. Sure, there are still stories of hanging out with celebrities but we also start to see him develop as a performer. While the Monty Python television series was long over, the troupe found new life in movies. He talks about the Python movies Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life as well as his very funny yet underrated Nuns on the Run (hurray for cable television in the South).

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about the uproar over Life of Brian being sacrilegious. I can’t do it justice, so here is the quote:

We agreed early on, you couldn’t knock Christ. How can you attack a man who professes peace to all people, speaks out for the meek, heals the poor and cures the sick? You can’t. Comedy’s business is some kind of search for the truth. Clearly this was a very great man, leaving aside for a minute his potential divinity. No, the problem with Christianity was the followers, who would happily put each other to death at the drop of a dogma.

After The Meaning of Life and the death of Graham Chapman, Idle gets involved with stage plays and musical theatre. This eventually results in the mega-hit Spamlot which won the Tony for best Musical in 2005. Toward the end of the book there are stories about the famous Monty Python Live (Mostly) show at O2 arena. I watched a recording of this show and was pretty amazed at the rather lavish and professional production that included huge musical numbers complete with chorus lines, etc. It didn’t surprised me that Idle was the driving force behind it. After all, it is what he had been training for for years.

It was also then that I remembered the gag at the end of the “Galaxy Song” involving Stephen Hawking, so maybe I cheated, albeit subconsciously, in my guess that they would eventually meet.

I also enjoyed the stories of his friendships, especially with George Harrison and Robin Williams. I was horrified when I read his description of the attack on the Harrison home by a mentally deranged man, and I shed several tears reading about George Harrison’s death. I didn’t know that it was George Harrison who provided the financing for Brian, mortgaging his home to do it, simply because he believed in them and wanted to see the movie.

I also got a little verklempt reading about Robin William’s suicide. Of all the recent celebrity deaths, that one bothered me the most. Robin was kind of a geek idol: someone who showed it was okay to be weird, to be funny. I adored that man, although I never met him.

I remember two things about his death. On the news that night they led with his story, but later in the broadcast they mentioned that Kim Kardashian had produced a book of selfies that had immediately sold out. Now I have nothing against Ms. Kardashian making a buck, but I thought it was sad to live in a world where Robin was dead and selfies were trying to take his place.

That night I had a very realistic dream that I was able to stop him from committing suicide. For some reason I ended up at his house, and when he came to the door I could tell something was wrong. We talked for hours and when I finally left he was feeling better. We know now from the autopsy that his depression was caused by Lewy body dementia so no amount of talking would have helped, but it was a nice dream in any case.

The book ends with stories about a tour Idle did with John Cleese. I remember reading an interview with Cleese about that tour where a woman in Florida asked, in all seriousness, “Did the Queen kill Princess Diana”.

Cleese replied, “Certainly not with her hands”.

Although I can’t find an authoritative reference, Thoreau is credited with saying “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to their grave with the song still in them”. This is definitely not the case with Eric Idle. He is still living an amazing life and, it is hoped, still singing.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

I have a Harlan Ellison story.

Ellison, who passed away last week at 84, was one of my favorite authors. While I had read a few of his stories growing up, it wasn’t until my friend Craig made a reference to “The Deathbird” that went over my head that I got into Ellison in a big way. This was probably around 1985, and Craig loaned me the Deathbird Stories and I was hooked.

Harlan Ellison was a polarizing person, but as this was before social media was ubiquitous I remained pretty much isolated from the more negative aspects of his personality. Ellison was also the first author who demonstrated to me that being a writer was a job. When I was younger writing seemed like something you did on the side. I knew a number of people who were like “when I retire, I think I’ll become a writer”. Ellison simply went to work, and nothing demonstrated that more than his habit of self-promotion that involved writing a short story, in public, in a day.

It worked like this: he would show up at a book store when they opened. Someone, usually a local celebrity, would give him a “seed” for a story. It could be a word, a phrase or a short paragraph. He would then sit down in the window of the shop and type out a short story during the course of the day, on a manual typewriter, taping each page to the window as he progressed. You could come to the store to meet him, and if you purchased a certain amount you would get a copy of the story. Considering the time pressure and the minimal ability to make edits, it is quite an accomplishment when you think about it.

Anyway, in the spring of 1991 I was finishing up my fourth and final senior year in college when the Engineering department announced a bus trip to the IEEE conference in New Orleans. I had little interest in attending the conference, but “cheap trip to New Orleans” resonated with me so I signed up. As it involved a 12 hour bus trip and sharing a room with three other guys it wasn’t my dream trip, but the price was right.

We rode overnight from Charlotte to New Orleans, arriving in the morning. A group of us immediately made our way to Pat O’Brien’s for our morning Hurricanes on the large patio.

Along the way I saw a flier for Harlan Ellison coming to the Bookstar on Tchoupitoulas Street (which doesn’t appear to be there anymore). He was doing his short story thing, and I was very excited at the prospect of meeting the man in person.

As advertised, he was set up on a little platform near the front window. There were only three or four people around him, but for once I developed a bit of shyness and I didn’t walk over, choosing instead to hover around the display near the cash register with the pencils and erasers. To my surprise, a few minutes after I arrived he walked right over next to me to get a pencil. I used the opportunity to introduce myself and he immediately grabbed on to my name, going as far as to ask me if he could use it in a story sometime. I was so flattered and shocked that I didn’t even request that the character not be an asshole (to my knowledge he never went through with it, but it was cool to consider).

Emboldened, I followed him back to the typewriter and kind of hovered. Most of his conversation was with a bearded gentleman next to him who was obviously a local. He would ask things like “If I were to leave New Orleans, heading north, what highway would I take?” etc. Turns out that man was George Alec Effinger. While this would be my only interaction with Harlan Ellison, I carried on a pen-pal relationship with Effinger for several years after meeting him here.

Ellison was writing the story that would become “Jane Doe #112”. The main character, Ben Laborde, needed to leave New Orleans which was why he’d asked about highways. His writing process was done out loud, and he said he needed Laborde to be in some sort of “everyman car” and came up with a 1978 Toyota Corolla. Unable to help myself, I interjected that my Dad had a blue 1977 Corolla and that the air conditioning was crap. He loved it. Encouraged, when he ask out loud that he needed Laborde to have some sort of job that caused him to travel, I suggested “ATM repairman”.

If you grab a copy of 1997’s story collection Slippage and turn to page 232, you’ll read at the bottom about Ben Laborde’s complaints about the air conditioning in his blue 1978 Corolla, and on page 233 you’ll learn that he was a “repairman for ATMs”.

Go me. That is the sum total of my contribution to my first and only collaboration with Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison note

For once I didn’t overstay my welcome. I bought a few books, including his latest Angry Candy, and he was kind enough to autograph them.

I never talked with Harlan Ellison again, although I did hold out hope that my name would show up somewhere in his work. Even if I was an asshole.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

I live on a farm, and a lot of my spare time is spent simply maintaining the property. When we moved out there so many years ago, I had grand plans for all of the land: an orchard over here, a hedge maze over there, and wonderful garden near the kitchen.

Then reality set in and it’s all I can do to keep the place from getting overrun with weeds. Luckily, nature gives me a bit of a respite with winter, but now that it is over I can look forward to the majority of my weekends being taken up outside. Not that I really mind, to be honest, but it doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of time for other pursuits I love, such as reading.

Last weekend was an exception. I decided to spend it reading (and watching NCAA basketball, but that’s church) and managed to read two really good novels.

One, The Fifth Season I have already reviewed, which was loaned to me by Ben. The second was The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

I picked this book up last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill where Scalzi was appearing on a book tour promoting the novel. If you bought a copy there you could get it signed, so I went, along with Ben and his bride Cynthia.

If you get a chance to see Scalzi speak, I highly recommend it (here is a link to his tour dates). He does a really good job and I found the hour entertaining. He moved the talk along without ignoring the audience, which was loaded with your usual assortment of Sci-Fi nerds and people who just love books (for example, a group of us. some strangers, played the mobile version of Exploding Kittens on our phones while waiting for the talk to begin).

Afterward, we lined up for a few minutes with the man himself. Ben and Cynthia are “Sea Monkeys”, otherwise known as people who take the annual JoCo Cruise, and they had seen Scalzi speak a month ago on the boat. They were ahead of me in the signing line and bonded a bit with Scalzi over that shared experience.

Everyone who knows me knows I love to talk, especially with interesting people, but I knew I wouldn’t have much time with him. I did want to talk about something cool, and I brought up a memory triggered by his talk.

He didn’t read from The Collapsing Empire, instead he talked about the upcoming book in his Lock In series. In that universe, 1% of the world’s population suffers from a condition known as “Lock In” when they are fully awake yet fully paralyzed (similar to the end-stage effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and other causes of Locked-in Syndrome). Technology comes to the rescue allowing those who suffer from this condition to pilot and interact through android bodies, called “Threeps” after the character C-3PO.

I got to thinking about what it would be like to interact with one or more people in such a body, and it reminded me of an incident that happened with our telepresence robot at the office. We have a device made by Double Robotics that you can think of as an iPad on a Segway. People can connect to it and drive it around. At my office we have a number of people who work remotely, some in other countries, so we got this robot to make it easier for them to feel part of the team.

One time I knew that Ronny, who lives in Germany, was on the robot talking to Jessica (our graphic designer) in her office about a new web site design. Even though I communicate with him often via instant messenger or a Hangout, when I realized I needed to ask him a question I unconsciously got up, left my office and went to talk with him in her office. It only struck me how odd that was after I returned to my desk and noticed my chat window. Thus, I think it would be very easy for such androids to assimilate into our culture without some sort of Future Shock.

We chatted about this for a minute, and then I offered my hand for a handshake. I immediately felt foolish, because I know a number of people who interact with lots of strangers tend to shy away from contact, but he shook my hand without hesitation. I did notice him grab the Purell right afterward and had to laugh. I like to think I’m on the high end of the geek hygiene scale but having suffered for nearly two months with some crud I picked up in Brussels at FOSDEM, I totally understood.

Anyway, back to the book. I always like to stress that I am not a professional book reviewer (I write these more to capture my own thoughts than for general consumption) and I try to stay away from spoilers. This is easier with a book I like, like this one, so minimal spoilers ahead but if you are sensitive to such things don’t continue on. If you want better reviews, check out Goodreads.

The Collapsing Empire Cover

The first thing I noticed about the novel is that it felt slim. At 329 pages it was a lot smaller than the last two speculative fiction (SF) novels I read (The Fifth Season at 512 pages and Babylon’s Ashes at 544 pages). But then Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a scant 181 pages. Scalzi even addressed this on his blog, and from my own experience it read like a novel so no complaints there.

For some reason SF stories tend to span multiple volumes. Since I fully understand the author’s need to eat I know why they are released over time, but it can be frustrating for the fan. Some of my favorite authors are also notoriously slow writers. In some cases it doesn’t matter. For example, Neal Stephenson puts out huge books but for the most part they stand alone (the Baroque Cycle being the exception). I know as a reader that once I get to the end of it there will be some sense of closure. Other authors tell epic stories that don’t end with that last page, and it can be a bit frustrating waiting for the next part of the tale. Now I’m not one of those fans who are all “Write me a book, bitch,” it is art after all and art doesn’t follow schedules or deadlines, but I understand the sentiment.

My point (and yes, there is a point here) is that I really don’t care about the length of a book as long as the story is solid, and I don’t care if it spans multiple volumes as long as those come out on a regular basis. The two authors I mentioned above, Jemisin and Corey, are pretty good about releasing a new book once a year, and that once every one or two years works for me. I read so much that if it goes on much past that I end up having to re-read the original books, and quite often I don’t have the time.

Scalzi is pretty good about his output, although he did mention in the “Acknowledgments” that he was frustrated by the time it took to finish The Collapsing Empire.

Yes, there is a book review in here somewhere. I’m getting to it.

The Collapsing Empire takes place several centuries in the future of the Earth, and humankind has spread out to other star systems. One thing that all SF writers who include interstellar travel have to deal with is that pesky issue of the speed of light.

In our current understanding of the universe, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. As one approaches the speed of light, time, length and momentum change by an amount called the Lorentz factor, often represented by the variable gamma. Here is an equation for gamma:

Lorentz Factor Gamma Equation

Note that it looks kind of scary, but it becomes much easier if you represent velocity, v, as a percentage of the speed of light.

For example, at one-tenth the speed of light, 0.10c or roughly 30,000 km/s, the denominator becomes the square root of (1 – 0.01) or 0.99499 which divided into one results in a gamma of 1.005. This means that at one-tenth the speed of light, time will appear to be half a percent slower, length will appear half a percent shorter and momentum will be half a percent greater.

Just to note that one of the fastest things I know about, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, is only moving about 17 km/sec, and if you plug that into the gamma equation the difference is negligible. This is why Newtonian physics gets the job done in most situations.

As you get closer to the speed of light, gamma gets larger. At 0.9c gamma is 2.29 and at 0.999c it’s 22.4. At the speed of light the denominator becomes 0 so gamma becomes infinite. This demonstrates why faster than light travel is not possible. With a Lorentz factor of near infinity it would take an infinite amount of energy to go faster.

Note that the speed of light is a limit with the caveat “for now”. The light speed limitation applies to everything, including information, but there is some evidence that it may be possible to send information faster than the speed of light.

Anyway, since the nearest star to Earth, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, interstellar travel is problematic. Let’s say the bad guy in the story hops in his starship, cranks it up to a whopping one-tenth the speed of light, and heads out for the nearest star. The plot would have to pick up with his offspring something like 40 years into the future, assuming they survive. Not very exciting.

So it is up to SF authors to come up with some way around this speed limit. In Star Trek it was “warp speed” and in Star Wars it was “hyperspace”. In the past Scalzi came up with a rather unique way of addressing this by using multiple universes. In quantum theory, at microscopic levels it becomes impossible to know the exact location and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time. Thus the particle’s state is defined by a series of possibilities, describe by something called a “wave function”. When a measurement is made, the wave function is said to collapse into one of the possible states. One interpretation of this is that there are actually an infinite number of universes, real close to one another and representing all possibilities, and when the wave function collapses it is our consciousness, through the measurement, deciding in which one it wants to be.

Pretty heady stuff.

In Scalzi’s system, the way to travel to another star is to simply pick the alternative universe that is the same in every way as the one you are in, with the exception that you are there and not here.

While it is dangerous to apply quantum theory to macroscopic things, such as a cat, I thought Scalzi’s use of it was pretty original and cool.

With that prologue (sigh) let’s get back to The Collapsing Empire. In this universe Scalzi invents a new method for faster than light travel. Humans have discovered a part of the physical world called “The Flow”. It is, to paraphrase Ted Stevens, quite literally a series of (one way) tubes. While the physics of The Flow is pretty abstract (and not really relevant to the story), ships are able to enter a particular Flow at an entry point called a Shoal. Then, after some amount of time, they will exit the Flow at some distant location. This has enabled humans to colonize a number of star systems, although for the most part the places they live are underground in constructed habitats, as Earth-like worlds are hard to come by.

The main seat of civilization is one such habitat called The Hub, because it is located near a large number of entry and exit points to various Flows. Travel within a flow is not instantaneous, and the farthest system, End, is over nine months of Flow travel away from Hub.

The actual physics of The Flow is unimportant because this story is much more about plotting and intrigue than space travel. With all of these far-flung outposts of humanity, society had to be structured in such a way that they didn’t go to war with each other. The solution chosen was called the Interdependency. Resources were parceled out under control of guilds, which in turn were controlled by dynastic houses. Guilds received a monopoly on various products, and since these were scattered out among the various habitats it required them to work together in order to survive. One such house, the House of Wu, was powerful enough to install an emperor, called in the book by the gender-neutral term emperox, who stands at the top of society’s hierarchy.

The book takes place when two big events are happening to the Interdependency. One is that the emperox is dying, and we pick up with the first days of the new emperox. The second is that The Flow, which was considered stable, is now entering a time of great flux. In a very short period of time these “tubes” between various outposts of humanity are going to close forever, and thus the Interdependency is about to collapse. In fact, the Flow to (and I assume, from) Earth disappeared centuries earlier, as did one to another settlement, but those were considered outliers to The Flow’s innate stability.

Against this backdrop we get a healthy dose of court politics and backstabbing. Certain parties have more accurate information than others, and since these changes to The Flow mean, basically, the Interdependency is finished, people are angling to be in the best position when it goes away. As usual in such situations, some people are more concerned for their own well-being than those of society as a whole. It is a lot of fun to uncover the various plots and to see just how far people are willing to go to achieve their ambitions.

One of the coolest things he introduces is a perk of being an emperox. An interface is inserted into your neck which then records everything you think and experience. When you die this information is added to the “Memory Room” where the next emperox can come in and talk to those who held the position in the past. Scalzi makes use of this throughout the story, but what I liked about it is that the constructs of those who were emperox in the past are without ego, so they talk without any filters. I think it would be so interesting to be able to talk with certain people who lived in the past and get access to their unvarnished thoughts.

All of this is done in the prose for which Scalzi is known. I had to look up some new words, such as “squicked”, and toward the end he refers to one house as the House of Jemisin, which is an obvious nod to the author N.K. Jemisin.

It was a fun read, and I really look forward to the rest of the series. It looks like his next book, Head On will continue the story started in Lock In so I guess we can expect the next one in this series, The Last Emperox in late 2018 or early 2019. Despite that, I wouldn’t wait to read The Collapsing Empire, as it is really good on its own.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Over the weekend I read the excellent The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I always feel the need to justify negative reviews with examples, but since I liked it expect this review to be light on spoilers. However, if you are sensitive to such things, read the book and then come back. As usual, this post will be meandering and contain a lot of digressions, so you might want to just go check out Goodreads.

The Fifth Season Cover

This book won the best novel Hugo Award last year. I have a strange relationship with the Hugos, brought on mainly through my acquaintance with Ursula Vernon.

I live outside of the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. It is rare that we have any sort of celebrity here (well, unless I bring them) and outside of a brief handshake with Al Roker, it’s not often I’ve met anyone even quasi-famous.

Through my work with open source software, I met a man named Kevin and eventually I was introduced to his partner, Ursula. She had written a number of things, most notably a web comic called “Digger”. Digger is a wombat who has, shall we say, adventures. Wonderful adventures. It’s delightful and was successful enough to be turned into books.

In 2012 those books were nominated for a Hugo. This is a Big Thing™ especially for someone I actually know.

So, me being me, I set out to find out how I could vote in the Hugo awards. I figured someone has to, so why can’t I?

The awards are given out by the World Science Fiction Society at the annual WorldCon convention. In 2012 you could become a supporting member for $50, and that let you nominate and vote for works in the various award categories. Not only that, but it also included digital copies of all of the nominated works (which are a lot). It was definitely worth it.

I joined specifically to vote for Ursula, but, me being me, I felt I couldn’t vote on the other categories unless I was familiar with the nominees, so familiar I became. I read everything they allowed me to, including all of the novels.

Of course, the hands down winner for best novel of 2012 was Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (now a television series on the SyFy network). Of course, it didn’t win.

The winning novel, Among Others by Jo Walton, was good, but I felt that it pandered a little too much to the nostalgia of speculative fiction. Ironically, I was reminded of the film Hugo which was in part about the history of film making, much as Among Others reflected on the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. I saw this as a bias in the process, although understandable and not like one that would soon grow into a controversy on its own right.

Ursula Vernon at the Hugos

Even though my preferred novel didn’t win, Ursula did (and she was up against some strong competition). Read about it in her own words. I love this picture of her on stage, she’s on the left with Neil Gaiman on the right. She has since won a Nebula for her short story “Jackalope Wives”, and I’m trying to angle an invitation to “Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap” where they eat weird things and drink a lot. When I do, I plan to drink and then fondle both awards.

Anyway, what does this have to do with The Fifth Season? Well, it won the Hugo which means it was probably pretty good, but it made me wonder, did it “win win” or just “win”?

Of the other nominated works, I had only read Seveneves which I reviewed here. I’ve read the first of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series and quite liked it, but I haven’t read Ancillary Mercy. The other nominated author I’m familiar with is Jim Butcher, and while I haven’t read The Aeronaut’s Windlass I love his other work so I’d probably like this as well (I just realized how behind I’ve gotten on my reading).

When Ben loaned me The Fifth Season and I saw “Hugo Winner” right on the cover, I was a little skeptical. I knew it had to be good, rarely have I found a Hugo nominated work I didn’t like, but I wondered how much was talent and how much was hype?

After reading it, I’m convinced it is talent. While it is hard to compare a book like this, which is heavy on character development and interaction, with a saga like Seveneves, which is set in space and is heavy on technology and science, I think she earned the honor.

The story takes place on Earth (or a planet very Earth-like) several millennia in the future. All of the continents have come together in sort of a “Pangaea” and a number of civilizations have come and gone, including the one we live in now. While a number of “deadciv” artifacts are still about, including some orbiting obelisks, the current level of technology seems to be stuck around the Middle Ages, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for the rich. The land is called the “Stillness” which is ironic, since the world is constantly subject to various tectonic issues. Every few hundred years something happens, usually a huge volcanic eruption, that creates a “Season” (or a fifth season in addition to the usual four). The resulting earthquakes and ash radically disrupt the normal flow of things, which causes hardships for the people living in the Stillness.

To prepare for this, society has organized itself into “comms” or communities. These are groups of people who have banded together to guard against a potential Season. Most people are identified by three names: their given name, their use-caste, and their comm. For example, a politician would be in the Leadership use-caste, so someone like North Carolina governor Roy Cooper might be known as Roy Leadership Carolina, or some such. There are twenty such use names, with the most common being things like Strongback, Resistant, and Innovator.

Now this wouldn’t be a fantasy novel without a fantasy element. In this case certain humans, called orogenes, have a magical affinity for the Earth. They can use this power to still possible quakes and tremors, and trained orogenes can further manipulate matter in very magical ways.

And that’s the problem. Untrained orogenes can actually cause a lot of damage. In deference to a number of magical systems (the one that comes to mind is the “sympathy” of Patrick Rothfuss) the energy to do those manipulations has to come from somewhere, and in some cases it can be from surrounding human beings. As you can imagine, removing energy from your body, mainly in the form of heat, is not a healthy idea. Mistakes get made and people die.

This causes a lot of superstition and suspicion. In fact, most of the non-orogene “stills” refer to them by the derogatory term “rogga” which is similar to “nigger” in our society.

To help deal with this, the rulers of this society have created a place called “The Fulcrum” where orogenes can be trained to use their powers. New recruits, almost always children, are called “grits” and as they master their abilities they can gain rings (from one to ten corresponding to each finger). The more rings you have earned the higher your status in orogene society. Since those orogenes with many rings can be quite powerful, and even grits can kill, they are watched over by “Guardians” who have the ability to block the orogenes’ power with a power of their own.

Against this backdrop, Jemisin weaves three story lines that ultimately come together. In one she uses the second person, thus “you” do certain things. I’ve read a number of novels written in the second person, such as Bright Lights, Big City, and while I like the device it almost always becomes tedious. Jemisin avoids this by only using it for part of the book.

And that is one of the reasons I think this book earned the Hugo. There are a number of great storytellers out there, but few can use things like second person and multiple story lines and still keep the attention of the reader. I strongly recommend any fan of speculative fiction check it out. I’m very eager to read the next one in the series, The Obelisk Gate once Ben is finished with it. (grin)

Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I forgot how I got introduced to Paolo Bacigalupi. I do remember that the first book I read by him was The Windup Girl. I loved it. In the universe he creates, the world is post Peak Oil and depends on bioengineering, among other things, to provide the functions that used to come from petroleum. For example, vehicles run on springs, special nanotechnology springs that can store a tremendous amount of energy. They are wound by huge animals called meglodonts that walk on treadmills to generate power.

Cool, huh?

I followed that book with the short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories that I enjoyed as well, especially since many of the stories occur in the Windup Girl universe.

His next two books, however, were aimed at young adults. Look, considering the amount of money made from stories aimed at the YA market set in a distopian future, preferably with a female protagonist caught in a love triangle, I can’t blame him. They were good but not as enjoyable as his other work.

When I heard he had a new adult novel out, called The Water Knife, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

This book is definitely aimed at adults. It is set in our current universe, perhaps ten to twenty years in the future, and concerns the issue of water in the American southwest.

The story references a real book called Cadillac Desert. I haven’t read it (it’s on my wishlist) but it apparently warns that current water management policy in the western United States is doomed to fail. Considering the large population of people who live in that part of the country, the disappearance of water would have a huge impact.

The Water Knife is mainly set in a future Phoenix, Arizon, and follows three main characters: Angel, hired muscle to enforce water rights (or “water knife), Lucy, an idealistic Pulitzer-prize winning author, and Maria, a Texas refugee who fled to Phoenix when the water gave out in her home state.

Bacigalupi brings together these three people against a backdrop of violence and a murder mystery as they search for something that could greatly change the distribution of water in the region. The characters are fully developed, the writing is tight and I found it hard to put the book down. His writing reminded me of a younger, hipper William Gibson.

Reading the book was very straightforward, or I might have compared him to Neal Stephenson. Mainly because I didn’t much care for the book’s ending, and Stephenson is renown for not ending books well. He’s also known for requiring a bit of work to get into his stories, but this one was much easier to read. The more I’ve thought about the ending, the more I’m okay with it, but it is hard to say more without spoiling it.

Speaking of spoilers, I have more to say but as usual, the more sensitive of my three readers may want to stop now and just go get the book. If you like Gibson and Stephenson, you’ll like this. If you liked The Windup Girl you might be disappointed, as I was, that this story wasn’t set in that universe, but I still enjoyed the book.


Okay, so a little more detail about the story. The current system of water in the west has collapsed. Texas went dry, causing a mass exodus of people to the surrounding states. This caused a fracturing that saw these states to independently set up and police their borders, becoming more like small countries. They are still part of the USA, but Washington, DC, is a long way away.

As I mentioned above, Angel is a Mexican ex-con who works for a woman named Catherine Case, “The Queen of the Columbia”. Case makes her money building self-contained buildings in Las Vegas. All of the water and moisture is captured and recycled within the structures, and many of the wealthy citizens have bought into her buildings. She was able to build her empire by exercising tough control over water rights within Nevada.

Nevada is constantly competing with other states in the area, such as Arizona and California, for water. Case pulled Angel out of prison to become a “water knife” – a sometimes violent enforcer of her water rights. The book opens up with a military operation to destroy the pumping capacity of an Arizona border city that lost a lawsuit against Case. As part of his compensation, Angel lives in one of Case’s buildings, drives a Tesla, and is much more affluent than many around him.

We are also introduced to Lucy. She lives in Phoenix, which is struggling to stay alive after they lost access to water. While they are also building self-contained buildings for the affluent, the city is heavily populated with refugees from Texas. As with any situation with such suffering, the criminal element has taken root as well, and combined with a “Zoner” hatred of the influx of Texans, there is a lot of violence. She is documenting life in the city in the hope of finding some answers, and she makes her living publishing those stories. So while she is far from affluent, she can support herself and, unlike others, has the option to leave.

Finally, we meet Maria. She is a Texas refugee who came to Phoenix with her father, who was working to help build one of the self-contained buildings. He died in an accident and she was left without many options. Her story is that of the struggle the refugees face living day to day and wondering when and how they will get water.

As a reporter, Lucy often rushes to scenes of violence within the city. On one such trip she discovers the body of friend of hers, and he had been horribly tortured before his death. She knew that he had discovered something about water rights, rights that could drastically change the balance of power in the region, and it had gotten him killed.

Case has also heard that something is up in Phoenix, and she sends Angel to investigate. He and Lucy first meet when she is at the morgue to learn more about her friend’s death.

If anyone has any doubts about Bacigalupi’s return to adult fiction, the account he writes about what happened to that body will remove them, along with your ability to sleep at night. It describes, in cold and clinical detail, one of the most horrible acts of torture ever conceived. I thought about quoting it here, but I can’t bring myself to type it in.

Anyway, the paths of Angel and Lucy cross a number of times until they become partners of sorts. Lucy is trying to uncover the news story of a lifetime, and Angel is trying to execute his job for Case. Eventually, their paths cross with Maria.

I should stress, this is not a happy book. What happens to these three characters is not good. Water is life, and without it life is “nasty, brutish and short”. I won’t, and actually can’t, say if the ending is happy or not, but if you’re looking for “they lived happily ever” read Harry Potter.

If you are interested in a take on how the beginning of the end will start, check out this book. You’ll be glad you did.

Review: Slabscape: Dammit by S. Spencer Baker

The second book in the Slabscape series, Slabscape: Dammit takes place immediately after the events in Slabscape: Reset. Once again we join Louie Drago in his various incarnations on a spaceship called The Slab (that is the size of California) on its 20,000 year journey.

That seems like a long time, and it is. This second book is very much about time.

We follow the story through the eyes of our protagonists, the “reset” Dielle who is in Louie Drago’s rejuvenated body, as he strives to find purpose and understand his new home, and a holographic recording of Louie Drago himself, who has managed to place himself in a position of power within the Slab’s government system. This is a system which is not a democracy. As my home country struggles with its own democracy, I really liked the following quote from the book:

Democracy is a flawed and highly ineffectual form of government that relies on the majority of the enfranchised being capable of understanding all of the implications of highly complex and interdependent situations. An empowered electorate must not only be able to fully comprehend all of the information they are given and be capable of making accurate analysis, which few are, they must also be motivated and willing to be completely engaged in the process, which even fewer are, and they must also accept responsibility for their decisions, which virtually no one does. Democracy is open to manipulation by clandestine information controllers and by the mass media who have their own commercially dictated agendas. Voters are too easily influenced and are vulnerable to the fear-mongering and short-term whims of the self-interested and the self-destructive.”


As in the previous novel, the Slab is beset with a danger that it must overcome, and Louie plays a big role in this. We also follow Dielle’s journey of personal growth through a variety of very comic situations. I enjoyed this book a lot, and I think SSB has avoided the sophomore slump.

I have more to say that I’ll try to keep spoiler-free, but if stuff like that bothers you, just stop now and go read the book.


The Slab is traveling at close to the speed of light. That causes all kinds of funky things to happen. For example, compared to someone remaining on Earth, time would appear to move much more slowly on The Slab. Those whiz-bang smart kids I went to school with can even calculate the exact factor by which time would slow down. It’s called gamma, and there is even a nifty little calculator to determine what it is. For example, if you are traveling at 97% of the speed of light, gamma would be a little over 4. This means that for every year of subjective time you experience, a person in a reference frame stationary to yours (i.e. think back on Earth) would experience four years. At 99% of the speed of light, that jumps to 7. A speed of 99.9% makes it 22, and 99.99% comes out to 71.

So if the Slab was traveling at .9999c for 300 years, over two millennia will have passed on Earth.

Now, the physics of Slabscape are similar to our own, and thus the Slab is having issues trying to accelerate. From a stationary reference point, gamma also affects mass (well, not really, it affects momentum but let’s pretend it affects mass). If you are at 99.99% of the speed of light you would appear to have 71 times the mass. Since the energy needed to accelerate an object is proportional to its mass, it takes a lot more energy to accelerate a relativistic object a small amount than it would at lower speeds. Since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, the theory goes, it will take more and more energy for smaller and smaller gains until it takes an infinite amount of energy to try to reach light speed.

That is, if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Einstein, the guy who thought most of this up, stated that not even information can travel faster than the speed of light. But then he and two buddies named Podolsky and Rosen came up with a thought experiment, referred to as the EPR Paradox, that seems to cast doubt on that.

The idea is pretty simple. There are “entangled” particles that have to share certain known characteristics. For example, spin. If one particle has a spin of “up”, the other must have a spin of “down”. The kicker is that spin is pretty arbitrary. During the measurement I choose what is “up” is, but with entangled pairs, the moment I say one particle is “up” the other one automatically becomes “down”, even though the values of “up” and “down” didn’t exist before the measurement.

So, the EPR guys thought, what happens if I have an entangled pair and I send each particle off in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. I then wait awhile (milliseconds is enough at these speeds) and then measure one particle as “up”. The second one must instantaneously know to be “down”, but the only way that is possible is if the information travels faster than the speed of light.

Fascinating, huh?

Anyway, this theory plays a role in a plot point in Slabscape: Dammit as we finally find out how Louie got his start. Louie, currently a being of pure data, ends up getting himself duplicated again, and each of those “selves” have a fun run in with time.

In the meantime, our horny, naive hero, Dielle, is busy making friends and questioning his relationship with his manager/girlfriend Kiki. At one point she refuses to let him join her shopping because he is a heterosexual male, and, also being a heterosexual male who has been married for over 20 years, I loved this explanation of the female shopping experience:

Statistical analysis of time spent shopping by typical female Slabcitizen: 40% trying on things they already know they won’t like, 40% deciding not to try on things they know they would like but are too similar to something they already own and 20% complaining about the lack of suitable choice. Although 85% of shopping results in zero acquisition, 90% of shopping activity produces feelings of satisfaction in the shopper, 65% of acquisitions are never worn, 30% of acquisitions are worn once only, 4% are worn more than once but never when the same people are involved in the same social situation, and 1% are worn until they wear out, then lamented over despite the fact that identical replacements are available.

Anyway, he joins a band called “The Garlic Farts” (a wonderful name by Slab standards) and takes the stage name of Blood, and yes, Blood Dielle took me a lot longer to get than I care to admit.

One of his band mates, Fencer, is a character that I identify with pretty strongly. If I had unlimited time and fairly unlimited resources I’d be out making things, and that is what Fencer does (in addition to playing mad drum solos on a virtual reality drum kit). He is the one who figures out how to use quantum entanglement to send information back into the past.

We also get to learn about other cultures on The Slab. For the most part we’ve been spending time with the “famous for being famous” set, those people who make modern day TV shows with the words “Real” or “Shore” in their titles popular. But there is a huge set of “gamers” on The Slab who spend their entire lives isolated and immersed in a virtual reality. If all of your bodily functions could be maintained automatically, wouldn’t that be tempting? Some people isolate themselves to a similar extent on modern day Earth – in Japan there is even a term for it: Hikikomori.

There are also the Unkos, or “uncooperatives”. These are people who do not wish to be attached to the SlabWide Integrated System (Sis) and have thus withdrawn to areas of the Slab Sis is not allowed to monitor. This doesn’t mean they have gone primitive, as many use localized versions of the tech Sis manages, but those who do are called Naturalists. Naturalists tend to grow their own food and make their own tools and shelter, as well as doing other things in a more natural fashion that would spoil a funny part of the Slabscape mythos if I told you about it.

As I mentioned above, SSB is really finding his stride in this second novel, and it made me hunger for the third book, Slabscape: Reboot. Since the first one came out in 2011 and the second in 2015, we may have to wait until 2019 for it, but at least he writes faster than George R.R. Martin.

Review: Slabscape: Reset by S. Spencer Baker

When I was last in the UK, I made a friend named Bill. We share a lot of things in common, especially a taste for a certain breed of science fiction. He recommended that I read the Slabscape series by S. Spencer Baker, so, moist robot that I am, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

The first book in the series (whose number currently stands at two) is Slabscape: Reset. I quite enjoyed it, once I got over the author’s initial attempts to channel Douglas Adams.

For geeks of a certain age, Douglas Adams holds a special place in both our pantheon of authors and our hearts. There was no one like him. When I started the book I felt that SSB was trying a little too hard to write like Adams. Now, granted, he did a pretty darn good job of it but I still found myself recoiling slightly every time I hit a paragraph that was especially Adams-esque.

Luckily, that didn’t last. The author finds his own voice and spins out a yarn that only echoes the whimsy of Adams without co-opting it entire. Part of the similarities could be that they are both British and about the same generation, but beyond that I wasn’t able to find out much about him. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry, so I had to go off and make one (I’m a little embarrassed about my own).

The TL;DR is that if you like science fiction along the lines of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, you’ll probably like this.

As usual, I try to be spoiler free when doing reviews, but purists may want to skip the rest of this.


Okay, Slabscape: Reset. The book focuses on the point of view of two characters, who are, in a sense, one. Louie Drago was once one of the wealthiest people on the planet. In his old age he has himself frozen and he buys a one-way ticket on a huge interstellar spaceship with instructions to revive him when the technology has advanced enough to do so. The start of the book details this revival as Louie comes back as a “reset”. His body has been reset to that of a 27 year old male, and while he remembers things such language he doesn’t remember much of his previous life.

He finds himself on the “Slab”, a spaceship that is 1024 km long, 455 km wide and 114 km high, currently holding nearly 32 million humans. Most of those humans are neurally connected to an artificial intelligence called the SlabWide Integrated System, or Sis. As a reset he can choose his own name, and at the suggestion of his nurse, Kiki, he chooses Dielle (from Row D, Column L, where his frozen body was stored).

Turns out Kiki is not normally a nurse. She wanted to be the first to meet Dielle because most of the revenue generated on Slab is from entertainment, and at 325 years Dielle is the oldest reset ever and thus a source of great interest to the Slab population. She is a media specialist who becomes his partner and love interest, and a lot of the early plot and humor comes from Dielle’s attempts to understand and assimilate into this new culture.

Part of that is dealing with meeting himself. The original Louie Drago is still around in the form of a hologram, and soon after Dielle turns him on he manages to gain autonomy. He quickly adapts to his new situation and becomes quite a player within the Slab community. One of my favorite quotes from the book is a description of Louie’s past self:

… he was pornographically wealthy, had traveled to all the parts of the Earth he had any desire to visit, had experienced as many risky and thrilling experiences as he could reasonably endure and had variously drunk, eaten or inhaled as many legal, semi-legal or wildly illegal substances as his robust constitution could tolerate. He’d been there, seen it, done it and stubbornly refused to buy any T-shirts, postcards or anything that would ever require dusting …

If I was planning on having a tombstone, I’d love to be able to put that on it.

The Slab is on a 20,000 year mission to a specific part of the galaxy. Scholars on Earth, trying to determine the existence of a soul, had discovered that when people die some energy heads off toward one particular point in space. The people on the Slab refer to this place as Home, and even though the Slab is traveling at a significant portion of the speed of light it will still take a very long time to get there (this story is set approximately 300 years after departure). Technology has advanced so that the Slab’s engines are “gravity drives” that collect mass to provide building materials and propel the ship forward. There are zones of the ship that are always in daylight, some that are always in darkness, and various combinations of sunlight and weather throughout the vessel. Drago had made most of his fortune through the discovery by his business partner of “matter transmitters,” or “emties,” that can instantaneously move matter from once place to another. They play a key role in life on the Slab.

The mission, however, is not a key part of this book. It is much more about discovering the world that SSB has created. In a place where everything necessary for survival is provided for you, human endeavor turns to creating things: art, music, entertainment, etc. How this society deals with issues of intellectual property, privacy and human interaction is interesting and at times quite funny.

Against this backdrop, a threat to the slab is discovered. Louie ends up playing a key part in addressing it. While emties can move matter around, they do not work on living things. Louie, being a hologram, isn’t covered by this limitation. Being pure data, he also ends up getting copied a number of times, so we end up with more points of view that are all still Louie in some form or another.

As with any good tale, adversity is overcome and the characters experience personal growth. I really enjoyed his portrayal of the consumer culture on the Slab. Think about it, what would you do if all your spare time could be focused on making things? While there are characters who take advantage of that, most of what is consumed on the Slab is the same banal entertainment that populates our culture and this book is something of an indictment of it.

It was a very enjoyable book and made me eager for the next one.

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson and I have a simple relationship: He writes books; I buy his books.

Such was the case with his latest, Seveneves (pronounced Seven-Eves, the second word like the wife of Adam). When I learned about it I immediately bought it on Amazon.

TL;DR; Stephenson’s writing for me is like pizza: when it is good it is really good, and when it is bad, it is still pretty good. I am not calling Seveneves bad, and I enjoyed reading it (at times I couldn’t put it down) but he tries to cram in too much into an already long book. Considering how much I like his other work, I’d have to place this one toward the bottom of the list.

Note: What I’m about to describe will be considered spoilers by many, so if you are sensitive to such things and plan to read the book, you might want to skip it. I listened to Stuart Langridge’s review on Bad Voltage and while it was pretty much spoiler free, I almost wish I hadn’t until I’d finished the book. I’ll add some carriage returns here in case you want to leave.


Okay, Seveneves is divided in to three parts.

Part One

The book starts out with the moon being broken into seven pieces. Stephenson never explains why this happened, and even the characters in the novel just refer to the cause as “The Agent”. I am more than okay with this. My favorite type of hard science fiction is when something happens or something changes suddenly that might remain unexplained, but then what follows is a coherent chain of events that can be explained by the science we know. So, the moon blowing up is a given, and now what happens next?

One of the first major characters we are introduced to is a popular scientist named Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, or “Doc Dubois”. As many people have pointed out, he is strongly based on Neil deGrasse Tyson. Due to orbital mechanics, the remaining seven large pieces of the moon stay pretty close together (The Agent, by whatever method used to fracture the moon, wasn’t energetic enough to send the pieces far away from each other). When, after awhile, two of the large pieces collide to make eight, Dubois realizes that this process will continue for some time, making smaller and smaller pieces, and eventually all of those pieces will be captured by the Earth’s gravity.

This will not be a good thing. The moon is massive enough that this “Hard Rain” of debris will fall for approximately 5000 years and destroy all life on the planet. There is about two years before this will start.

The world’s population reacts by creating a “Cloud Ark”. The International Space Station (ISS) in this universe has been tethered to a captured asteroid called Amalthea. The idea is to group lots and lots of survival pods, called “arklets”, behind Amalthea to provide a shield from the debris, and all of the world’s infrastructure is put into action making the arklets and solving issues such as food production.

Stephenson does a good job in describing a world where almost all of population realizes it will die. The process is surprisingly orderly, due in part to the idea that through a method called “the casting of lots” the members of the Cloud Ark will be chosen from the population as a whole, usually consisting of a young man and young woman from various regions of the planet.

I especially liked a scene where Dubois visits Bhutan to collect the two people chosen for the Ark from that area. Stephenson has a fetish for the idea of seeing what happens when members of a population, usually scientific or philosophic, decide to separate themselves from the rest of society. It was a key plot point to Anathem.

On this side of the river the ground rose almost vertically. The mountain barrier was cleft by a steep-sided valley that zigzagged up and away from them; the road leaped up into it and switchbacked up a stone cliff, fringed here and there with clusters of hardy evergreens that had found toeholds in crevices. Tendrils and torn veils of mist drifted across the face of the rock, providing occasional glimpses of a white tower, high above them, that had somehow been constructed on the precipice. It was one of those buildings, like some monasteries in Greece and Spain, whose whole point was to proclaim to those below, “This is how far we will go to achieve separation from the world.”


In any case, this part is focused on introducing us to the characters, setting the stage and describing, sometimes in great detail, the orbital mechanics of the whole thing. For a Stephenson novel is was surprisingly easy to get into the story (usually it takes me 100 pages or so to get into the groove). We learn about the people already on the ISS, the people who go up to make things ready for the “Akies” and how they plan to spend the 5000 years in space until the Earth is habitable again. Many of the characters are women, which becomes important later.

Dubois becomes one of the last people to leave Earth, which brings us to …

Part Two

Not far into the second part, the Hard Rain falls and fries the planet. The ~1500 humans still alive are spread out in the Cloud Ark, all with differing agendas, backgrounds and experience. Stuart refers to this as the Lord of the Flies part and he isn’t too far off.

In my mind, this is the weakest of the three parts but it was also the one I couldn’t put down. I thought it was weak because the characters were very stereotypical. There was the politico who uses social media and rhetoric instead of science and bad things happen. There is a tech billionaire who puts his life at risk to try and capture part of a comet to use for water. Interspersed throughout is lots and lots of science of “how things work”, which I both loved and found frustrating. From robotics to life in zero-g, Stephenson just throws so much at you, sometimes just enough to pique your interest before he moves on to something else.

But as I said, I couldn’t put it down.

At the end, what’s left of civilization is pretty safe. At the end, what’s left of civilization is eight women, one who is past menopause. Hence the name “Seven Eves”.

It’s a death toll to make George R. R. Martin proud.

One of the remaining “Eves”, Moira, is a geneticist, and she offers each of the remaining women the option of tweaking her genome. These are the women who will seed the next generations of the human race (and thus I assume it is not a coincidence that the moon originally broke into seven pieces), which will, in fact, create seven new races of human beings.

I almost wish that the book ended here. Stephenson could have fleshed out more of the story (for example, the survivors split into two factions and we learn little of one of them) and then done the next part as a separate volume.

But he didn’t, so on to …

Part Three

It is now 5000 years later. The Earth has cooled and been terraformed. The human population is around three billion and they live in an orbital ring around the planet, divided in groups based on which “Eve” was their ancestor. Several of the “Eves” have segregated themselves away from the rest of the population (going back to Stephenson’s isolationist theme), thus dividing humanity into two groups, the Red and the Blue (this was based on color coding used by Moira when doing her genetic modifications).

I really enjoyed this part, but it was very different from the first two, hence my suggestion that this would have been better served as a stand-alone book. The science here includes more orbital mechanics (such as space elevators) plus a lot about genetics. There is also a strong sociological thread as Stephenson discusses how the seven races interact. He introduces characters that I really wish could had had more development and background, such as Ty the bartender, but since the book runs over 850 pages, by this part Stephenson seemed to be in a rush to get to the end.

And like many of his novels, the ending isn’t great. I thought it ended better than I was expecting from earlier reviews, but it was a little too pat and somewhat predictable.


If you like Stephenson, you’ll like this book. I doubt it will be your favorite, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time or your money. I both enjoyed it and found it frustrating. He throws so much at you science-wise you want to scream “too much” but then there are parts of the story you wish he would explore in more depth.

If you have never read Stephenson, don’t start with this book. Start with Snow Crash, although it is a bit dated. He’s worth the investment.

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I’m not sure where the recommendation for Station Eleven originated, but it did cause me to add it to my wishlist and I got it as a gift. I’m glad I did.

This novel is a National Book Award finalist set in a post-apocalyptic North America. I’m a fan of “what if” stories about what happens when our technology fails us, because I think we are totally unprepared.

For example, I moved out to the farm in the fall of 1999. Due to infrequent but often lengthy power outages, I needed to invest in a generator. Unlike city-folk, our water comes out of the ground and without electricity that doesn’t happen. Hard to live without water.

Unfortunately, with the Year 2000 on the horizon people were buying generators like crazy and driving the prices up. Seriously? Even with a decent store of gasoline you’ll get, what, a month, tops, out of a generator when everything else fails.

I like to think about either what I would want to have with me in a post-apocalyptic world or what I would take if I could go back into the past. Antibiotics for sure, but how does one make penicillin? If you took a weapon, what is the most powerful tech you could use that you could find a way to reload? Heck, I even had to look up how to make bread. Sure, I’ve made bread from scratch before, but not from scratch. You’d need to find wheat, grow it, harvest it, mill it, and then you still need to deal with things like making yeast.

Fun times.

Anyway, back to the book. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. In the small blurb I read, it was described as the adventures of a travelling troupe of players who play music and perform Shakespeare. I was kind of expecting something like Brin’s Postman, where the unifying theme is some semblance of normality in a world no longer normal. Or, as one character in Station Eleven put it, all of the stories they read about the time after the collapse of modern civilization involved zombies.

Instead, the book is a character study. If there is a unifying factor it is the character of Arthur Leander. He is a moderately famous actor who has returned to his native Canada to perform King Lear in Toronto. His last performance is the night before the Georgian Flu arrives in the city, and it eventually kills 99.99% of the world’s population. The book follows the lives of several people brought together through their interaction with Leander – some relationships spanning years and others moments.

The book gets its title from a graphic novel created by Leander’s first wife, Miranda. She self published a few copies and gave one to her now ex-husband, who in turn gave it to a little girl in the cast named Kirsten. The story starts off on the night of that last performance, and then flashes backward and forward as we are introduced to more and more characters from Arthur’s life and how they end up interacting. A lot of the plot involves Arthur and his three wives, mainly Miranda, as well as Kirsten’s future as a player in the aforementioned Travelling Symphony, twenty years on.

I read Station Eleven in pretty much one sitting. I don’t read too many female authors, so I don’t want to sound to stereotypical when I point out that the novel is much more about the interpersonal relationships of the characters versus survival, but very little time is spent on the actual logistics of surviving in such a world and more about the thoughts, feelings, regrets and dreams of its characters. Basically: Arthur is introduced, the flu arrives, people die, civilization collapses and we pick up 20 years in the future.

So I missed out on a couple of things I like about such books. My favorite part of The Stand is the first 2000 or so pages which discuss the pandemic and how the main characters deal with surviving it. When the main plot kicks in over the remaining 4000 pages I start to lose interest. In Station Eleven she pretty much skips over that part and focuses on the story. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not what I was expecting.

If I had to nit-pick, the way the author handles the pandemic is a little too tidy. Instead of having some sort of natural immunity, it is implied that most of the survivors just got lucky and missed the infection. Considering that they spend a lot of time poking around in the ruins of the past I would think there would be occasional flare ups of the flu in the future, but perhaps that could be explained away by lack of hosts.

But, as I said, that is a small issue with an otherwise solid book. You care about these characters and it is cool to see how she ties up all the loose ends by the end of the story. While I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t put it down, the combination of bad weather and holiday fatigue lent itself well to curling up with a good book, and this one was perfect for the purpose.

Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

Note: I try to be spoiler-free but as everyone has a different tolerance for such things, spoilage may ensue.

I just finished The Peripheral by William Gibson, although I got it weeks ago. I’ve been traveling, and since I refuse to buy digital books encumbered with DRM, it is hard to take such a large book with me. I so wish the book industry would get its act together and either include a digital copy with a hardback or allow me to buy one for a small upcharge.

Enough of that. I got to see Gibson a few weeks ago and as part of the admission fee I got a copy of the book. I would have bought it anyway, but the chance to see the man himself was draw enough, not to mention “free book”.

Gibson has written three trilogies, and the first book in each always had a bit of a learning curve as you try to grasp the language. Imagine talking to someone 50 years ago about the Internet or an iPhone. Something as simple as “Hey, could you post that photo and link on Facebook” would have been totally indecipherable. He consciously chooses not to hold your hand, which in my case adds to the fun and makes his work interesting to re-read.

The story starts out at some point in a future United States. Things are not great. There is a mega-chain store called Hefty Mart where most people shop, although a lot of things are “fabbed” – fabricated using 3D printers. There aren’t a lot of options for making money outside of manufacturing drugs, and our protagonists seem to be living at close to subsistence levels.

We are introduced to Flynne, who works at one of the local fabrication shops, and her brother Burton, who is an ex-soldier. Burton, post service, doesn’t seem to have a job but he managed to land a gig helping a company called Milagro Coldiron beta test a video game. The job doesn’t entail much more than remotely controlling a drone in the game that spends its time doing surveillance on a large building, but it pays really well. One night he asks Flynne to substitute for him, and she witnesses something horrific, but writes it off as just another aspect of a weird computer game.

It turns out that it isn’t a game. The world Burton and Flynne visit is London, seventy years in the future. In that time, someone has figured out a way to communicate with the past. No one can physically travel between times, but information can be exchanged, and this is key to the plot where people in both time periods attempt to understand what Flynne witnessed.

As a reader, we get a double dose of Gibson’s prognostication abilities. First he imagines a future that could be as little at 20 years away, and then another one 70 years beyond that. The latter takes place after an event called “The Jackpot” where a lot of the world’s population die. Both worlds are richly detailed as only Gibson can do, and he has a nifty way of sidestepping the whole “go back in time and kill your grandfather” scenario that plagues time travel tales.

The technology that enables the future to talk to the past occurs in multiple instances. Each instance is called a “stub”, and the moment the first contact it made, the future of that stub changes. While all of the action in the book takes place in the stub in which Flynne and Burton live, there are references made to other stubs, sometimes put to terrible uses. But since the “future” for the stub is different than the future in which the stub was created, you neatly avoid paradox.

It also introduces an interesting time travel concept. Seventy years is not a terribly large amount of time, so some people in the future were alive at the same time as Flynne and Burton. What would you do if you had a way to talk to the past, a past in which you had lived? Would there be any wrongs you would try to correct? Any retribution to deliver?

I really liked this book. It is probably my favorite since Virtual Light, although I really liked Pattern Recognition as well. You care about the characters, and once you get over the hump of the language learning curve, the futures described sound plausible.

My only real disappointment was in the ending. The book is a little over 480 pages long, and at page 450 I’m still wondering how he is going to wrap up the plot. I think it could have used another 100-200 pages to really flesh out the back story, although this is more of a character study than an action thriller. I felt a little let down and for once in a Gibson novel it was pretty easy to figure out who the bad guys were going to be.

Despite that, it was a fun read. He claimed in his talk that this wasn’t the start of a new series, and there are aspects of the story that would make it hard to write a follow up. But if he changes his mind I wouldn’t mind revisiting this world.