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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Jade Mason