Review: Flashforward

Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm really torn on how to rate this book. On the one hand, the concepts and science discussed here make for excellent thought experiments. Unfortunately, the social elements of the story telling leave a lot to be desired. Unless you had some cue to who the speaker was, you wouldn't be able to tell the dialogue of one character from the next. All characters have nearly identical voices throughout. In addition, the way these characters relate to one another is, well, bizarre to put it mildly. I had real trouble believing that people in real life would behave as the characters here. There is no character growth to speak of throughout. The female characters are largely immaterial to the story, acting as scenery or minor detail to a plot point.

Despite the poor attention to the human elements of the story, I did find myself eager to continue reading. While the book is a bit dated now, but it doesn't detract from the ideas. What would it mean for humanity to get a glimpse of the future? What would it mean to our scientific community? Is our future immutable, or do we truly have free will? These are questions we may never be able to definitively answer.

Overall, a decent read. There are a few more Sawyer books in my to-read queue. This one hasn't given me any reason to move them up or down in that list.

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Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Fire Upon the Deep came highly recommended to me as one of the must read volumes in science fiction. It's easy to be let down when something comes along with such high praise, and that was the case for me. There were certainly quite a lot of elements that I enjoyed. I really enjoyed the way Vinge slowly introduces you to a new concept or element of the story without simply spelling it out for you explicitly. The subtle shift in the sex of pronoun usage and the way the tines are introduced really impressed me. There are some really interesting concepts here, and they are well realized within the story. On the other hand, the pace of this book is dreadfully slow. If you are looking for a high stakes, action / adventure story, this is not it. The ending really put me off, with the climax coming at a whimper rather than a bang. Overall, I liked the book, but it would not be in the short list of books I've recently read that I would recommend to folks with similar tastes.

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Review: The Strain

The Strain
The Strain by Guillermo del Toro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first third of this story was really gripping. A plane lands at JFK, taxis part way to the terminal, and then goes completely dark. Unfortunately, once we move beyond the plane, the story devolves into a rather ordinary vampire story. There are a couple of ideas here that I hadn't seen before such as a stinger rather than drinking the blood, and the idea of the blood worms. However, all of the usual tropes appear. I enjoyed listening to this in audio book form, especially with Ron Perlman narrating, but I don't think I'll be exploring any future editions in this series.

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Review: Influx

Influx by Daniel Suarez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suarez writes stories that I enjoy. Immensely. Influx is definitely keeping with that pattern. I love the concepts here, and it is easy to see how the themes apply in real life. The BTC regulates which technologies the world can have, and vanishes away any innovator who might provide the world with the next great leap forward. This agency may not really exist, but then I think about how some countries must view the USA. Our spy networks are unparalleled. Our technology fantastical. In addition, through trade agreements and tariffs, we largely regulate what technologies are available in some countries (for better or worse). In addition to this bit of introspection, I also came away with a healthy respect for the dangers of allowing an agency to have free reign to do as they please with a limitless budget. Of course, there is no such agency in the US that might have that sort of free discretion.

I'd highly recommend this book to most readers. It has quite a lot of action and some great insights into technologies that might just be around the corner. I read the first 100 pages or so as if the style were riffing on the humor of Men In Black. It got much darker, but I can definitely see a silver screen version of this film having some comical moments.

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Review: Crux

Crux by Ramez Naam

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the follow-up to Nexus, the book that introduced us to a drug that brought about the post-human. I felt that the first few chapters were like reading a sales pitch on the technology. All of these wondrous potential applications for Nexus are touched on, along with a few of the potential pitfalls. This isn't a terrible thing, but it did take me out of the story. The first half of the book does a lot of scene setting that the second half really cashes in on. If you've read the first book, definitely pick up this sequel!

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Review: Divergent

Divergent by Veronica Roth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This.....was not a book for me. Everything was there that should have made it a good fit. There was the dystopian future, the reality bending simulations, the action of the main character's initiation, the comparisons to The Hunger Games. Unfortunately, it fell flat for me. There's a good bit of buzz surrounding the Divergent series, and with the movie coming out next month I wanted to read it before going to the theater to watch it. Now I'm wondering if I might just wait for it to come out on DVD.

There were a couple of things that put me off. First, I couldn't identify with Beatrice. When I was a teenager I was the rare bird who had a pretty solid idea of what I was going to do with my life. I was good at math and enjoyed tinkering with computers. Going into computer engineering was a pretty straight forward decision for me. I can see where this book would appeal to the YA crowd it is aimed at. Making decisions about a career and college before you turn 18 can be truly terrifying if you haven't already found what you want to do. Beatrice is looking for her aptitude test to tell her what faction she belongs in. If only life had some 30 minute quiz that could tell high schoolers what career to prepare for.

I also had an issue taking some of the concepts in the book seriously. Other reviewers here have touched on it, but I find the whole "Five factions representing five human qualities" concept pretty ludicrous. Furthermore, the idea that anyone who doesn't fit into one of these five tidy boxes becomes homeless and desperate seems pretty silly. Maybe the next book will discuss what lies outside the city and why this is so.

If I understood it correctly, all children of members of a faction in what's left of the city of Chicago must choose their faction at age 16. They become initiates in that faction and must earn their place. Given that, it seems strange that Beatrice's chosen faction only had what I counted to be something like 30 initiates to begin with. Let's just assume that each faction has the same number of initiates. That means that for the entire city of Chicago there are only 150 children that are 16 years old. Did the city have a massive die off? What's the point of setting up these faction if each will only have a few thousand people? I'm probably paying too much attention to details in what is meant to be YA book, but these are the sorts of disconnects that bothered me.

My wife has finished the next two books in the series, and it seemed like she struggled to get through them. I may eventually finish out the series as well, but given this first book I think the next two are going to be pretty low on my priority list.

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Review: The Postmortal

The Postmortal
The Postmortal by Drew Magary

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How would life change if there were a cure for aging? I love philosophical questions like this and all of the interesting scenarios and possibilities they lead to. This story is full of humor, sadness, anger, and remorse. It is told as if you are reading the blog posts of John Farrell, a lawyer who received the cure in his late twenties.

I waffled between giving this story 4 or 5 stars. It isn't perfect, but it hits all the right notes for me. I know I'm going to be talking about this one to anyone who will listen, which is why I left it at a 5.

Would all that extra time allow us to lead fuller lives? Or would we treat it like anything that we have in excess: with little value. Is our mortality a gift?

Ok, some of the things that troubled me with this book. The collapse of man seems to go really fast here. I think the rate at which the population would expand is exaggerated. A quick look at the stats shows that the US had 4 million births in 2010 and just under 2.5 million deaths. The cure eliminates aging, but not death by other causes (violence, sickness, accidents, etc). The population would certainly increase at a fast rate, but the book indicates that overpopulation problems would be evident within ten years. I find that really hard to believe.

The greenies also seem sort of ludicrous to me. Internet trolls are looking to frustrate people for laughs. Physical harm isn't part of the repertoire. Sure, I could see independent individuals doing crazy things, but the description of the greenies indicates a collective behavior that I have trouble believing.

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Jade Mason