Review: Red Rising

Red Rising
Red Rising by Pierce Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Red Rising came highly recommended to me. It draws comparisons to a number of works that I've really enjoyed: [b:The Name of the Wind|186074|The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)|Patrick Rothfuss||2502879], [b:Ender's Game|375802|Ender's Game (The Ender Quintet, #1)|Orson Scott Card||2422333], and [b:The Hunger Games|2767052|The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)|Suzanne Collins||2792775] to name a few. The story is set on a future Mars where society has been divided into castes identified by color. The golds are the elite of society. They are superior in every way to the remainder of society, and they maintain a firm grip on their leadership. Conversely, the reds are the base of society. The reds work in mines, harvesting Helium 3 as party of the effort to terraform the surface of the planet so that it may later be colonized. The protagonist, Darrow, is a red. He is quicker than most reds, and his quickness allows him to pilot the drills that require deft operation to avoid killing the operator (and his crew) deep in the mines of the planet. Darrow has been told a lie, and we read of his transformation to something more so that he can challenge the lie.

I love dystopian novels, and that naturally leads me to enjoy this story. There are a number of things I really enjoyed here, but also some minor gripes that I feel prevented me from giving this book 5 stars.

The action sequences are many and gripping. This book is a great thrill ride.

I love the intrigue and subterfuge. Who can Darrow trust, and for how long?

Darrow is plunged into a future combat school. They are divided into teams and given the task of capturing the banner of their opponents. Their weapons are pikes, swords, bows, and arrows. Even our current army doesn't train with these weapons. I understand that this is a style choice meant to evoke the nobility of the knights of the round table, but it provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to me. Where are the guns?

Darrow is superman. Yes, he has some trials and tribulations. He suffers and fails at times. However, it is very difficult for me to believe that with just a few months training and massive modifications to his body that he becomes a master at disguising his own past as well as both physically and mentally superior to his peers. It seems that there would have been some very easy times to discover his red roots, such as when he sings the full verse of Eo's death song to Mustang. Presumably his ring was on at this time. Yet this is of no concern. Instead, his use of the single word bloodydamn to Apollo as he kills him is the big threat.

A lack of noble challengers. Everyone who opposes Darrow at the university is clearly a bad person, or else they quickly fall to him and join his band. Titus the mad tyrant abuses his enemies as well as his own tribe. The Jackal is certifiably mad in addition to being assisted by the proctors. Not one challenger of merit who seriously vies against him. I think it would have been very interesting to see how Darrow dealt with a noble opponent rather than the stark contrast we saw.

I would definitely recommend this book. Even though I spent more words on my gripes than my likes, those gripes are really rather minor. This book feels as though it continuously accelerates, building momentum from a slow start to screaming across the finish line, ragged and tattered from the race.

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Review: Lock In

Lock In
Lock In by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Lock In, and I think it would appeal to a wide range of readers. Scalzi has a talent for writing sci-fi in a way that is warm and relatable. A good comparison for this book is [b:The Peripheral|20821159|The Peripheral|William Gibson||40167043] by William Gibson. Both deal with similar motifs: imagine a world where people can project their consciousness into a machine and interact in the word via the machine. Both involve a murder mystery. Gibson writes in a style that evokes the cool and the mystique of these future advances, as well as the sub-cultures that evolve around them. He writes in a way that requires you to give his words your absolute focus, and usually a re-reading is required before the entire story resolves itself for you. Gibson's writing keeps you constantly off balance, fully aware that the world you are reading about is alien to yours. Scalzi, on the other hand, writes in a matter of fact fashion that feels comfortable and familiar. You quickly forget that the people interacting in a conversation might all be machines acting as avatars for the people behind them. Both styles appeal to me, but I think Scalzi's work is something that I can more easily recommend to a variety of readers. If I had any complaint about this story it might be that everything ties together just a little too neatly at the end. Crimes are messy affairs, and to see everything wrap up with a pretty little bow that you could see coming well in advance is a bit of a let down. Still, the story was engaging and turned into quite the quick read. I'd recommend Lock In to just about anyone.

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Review: Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has a lot going for it, but never finds a way to pull it together in a cogent way. There are so many elements that interest me: technology, programming, mysticism, hidden worlds, magic, dystopia, rebellion. Even so, I can't recommend this book.

The first two hundred pages do a decent job of setting the stage. Alif is a teenager who manages a social darknet where dissidents against the state can freely discuss their political views without threat of retribution. Alif is not a participant in these discussions, merely a facilitator, but he doesn't harbor any love for the State. The State has developed a powerful weapon for sussing out the source of these darknets and exposing their contributors referred to as the Hand.

Alif is a petty, unlikable boy. He is disrespectful and brash. When he is rebuffed by his girlfriend who has been betrothed to another man, he flies into a rage. He directs his rage into writing a virus that can detect the online behavior of his ex and prevent her from accessing his systems. He isn't quite sure how it works, but it works.

Let's stop here for a moment, as this was my first whiff of danger that the story was going to be a real turn off for me at times. I am a programmer. I've been doing this for decades. The descriptions of programming and how computers work in this story are more than just nonsense; they are ridiculous. Writing code does not work anything like what is described in these pages. If you are a coder you will likely find yourself at a point in this book where you must put your hand over your eyes to keep them from completely rolling out of your skull. It only gets worse from here. At one point Alif is in a fit of code writing where he goes into a daze and pictures himself riding a "column of data into the sky as he looks down at a crumbling base". Good grief. When Alif awakens from his stupor he finds that the PC he was coding on his literally melted to slag (conjure to mind that awful Sandra Bullock movie The Net). It was here that I nearly put the book down and decided not to finish, but the allure of the mystical jinn in the story enticed me to move on. Without beating this horse too much, suffice it to say that the writing on technology was poorly researched at best.

Alif's struggles change him as a person. By the end of the book he is humbled by his experiences as he sees the start of the Arab Spring (a bit of prescience on the author's part here, as the book pre-dates the rebellions throughout the middle east). Even so, there is still a lot to dislike. The story finishes a total mess. Hundreds of rioters rush up a staircase into an apartment for no particular reason. Alif has a final confrontation with the big bad of the story where they get into semantic discussion of their opposing views (keeping in mind there is a riot going around them, within this apartment).

Do not read this book if you know anything about programming. You will hate it. Do not read this book if you are a feminist. The women in the story are set dressing at best, and targets of derision throughout. Honestly, I'm at a loss at who I would recommend this to. It is a YA book dressed to belie that categorization. Its failings far outweigh its merits.

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Review: The Peripheral

The Peripheral
The Peripheral by William Gibson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Gibson isn't for everyone. His books don't hold your hand or spoon feed you the world he has crafted. Instead, you are thrust into am ongoing conversation as if you had been there all along. This can be disorienting and confusing, and for a lot of readers will be a turn off. I love it, though, and I think it gives his novels a lot of re-read value.

The Peripheral is probably the strongest example of this as it has two worlds for you to come to grips with. The first world is that of Burton and Flynne; a near future with rampant corruption, a drug driven Maker Bot economy, and a massive power gap between the wealthy and the poor. The second world is seventy years further into the future of the first. An event referred to as the Jackpot has the left the world in a technologically advanced state, but also...antiseptic? The world is clean and tidy to the point of being without soul.

The core of this story is a murder mystery. Flynne has witnessed a murder and must survive long enough to identify the murderer, who is bending his incredible resources in am attempt to eliminate Flynne before she has that opportunity. That would be interesting enough, but now compound that with the concept that the witness and murderer are living in two disparate timelines, where the future has access to life-like full body avatars and absolutely no qualms about destroying Flynne's alternate timeline. The concepts are fascinating, and I feel the effort of grokking the two worlds definitely pays off.

I highly recommend The Peripheral to any Gibson or SciFi fan.

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Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is your next read. I don't care what sorts of books you typically like, this is what you should read next. Not necessarily cover to cover, but get a copy, put it in your bathroom, and let your family / pets wonder why you are in there for so long...and giggling.

Randall Munroe (of XKCD web comic fame) maintains a blog titled "What If?" wherein he attempts to apply rigorous scientific methods to answer completely ridiculous questions. The book contains many entries from that blog (so go there and read some for a taste) as well as even more (51%) that are making their first appearance in the book. Munroe's sense of wit and insatiable curiosity shine throughout. Each question is answered in anywhere from 2 to 6 pages, and the reasoning provided is accessible to the layman. If you are curious to know more, Munroe provides a helpful list of sources at the end.

As I've traveled for the holidays I've had this book with me and it never fails to find a reader. I loved it, and I think you will too.

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Review: Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you read the top reviews of Robopocalypse on Goodreads you are going to see some pretty low scores and some scathing criticism. Those criticisms are all spot on. Fortunately, they didn't deter me from enjoying this book. Sure, it is one bad cliche after another. The characters are flat cutouts that you never feel any true empathy for. This is the book of an action movie, but before the action movie is released. It tries to adopt the World War Z style of small set pieces as told by those who experienced it first hand....but it doesn't do it very well.

Archos, an experimental artificial intelligence, manages to usurp its creators and launch into full scale genocide mode. The overriding goal of the machine is to turn the world into a sort of zoo, with all life achieving what Archos believes is a natural balance. This includes humans, but only a very limited way. Thus, Archos goes about utilizing all automata available to end the overabundance of human life. The survivors of the initial outbreak of war band together to fight back.

This is not great literature. This is the book form of a SyFy channel original. Take that for what it is worth.

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Review: Bird Box

Bird Box
Bird Box by Josh Malerman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think folks are going to run hot and cold on this one. I enjoyed it, but as I gave my wife the synopsis she just chuckled and rolled her eyes. Bird Box asks the reader to accept that there is something that can be seen that will drive a person mad. Mad to the point that they do harm to others and themselves. That's a pretty big leap to make, but if you can hang on to that reality (and not get too curious) you will probably enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you are at all the curious or inquisitive type, this book is going to drive you bonkers. The characters can't see anything (or else they would go mad) so you don't get a visual picture of the environment...or of the characters for that matter. You would think the author would compensate for this by describing how the other senses come to describe the places and people of the story. Not so. What you are left with are blank slates that you can fill in with your own imagination. Characters are barely discernible (if you've read the story, try describing the differences between Jules and Felix...tough right?). Where the author excels is in tempting you into reading the next chapter. Present day and flashback are braided together through each chapter, and each chapter finishes with some sort of cliffhanger. That makes for a quick read, but not necessarily great story telling. Ultimately, I think this is a fine beach read, but easily forgotten.

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Jade Mason