Level up! 150 followers

As a RPG gamer, I always think that the first few levels are intentionally easy, but having past the first ten level ups, things get more difficult.

First of all, please let me thank all of you followers, you’re dear to me and to my statistics 🙂

That number has been going up from 100 in December 2020. In absolute terms, comparing to the blogging whales, it is nearly negligible. There’s enough reason to stay humble. One doesn’t go to neighbors and tell them “hey, I have 150 followers” (muhaha!) for a book blog (roflmao!).

This is my tiny part of the online world, and it’s a connected one. Followers in general don’t drive up page hits that much. The largest amount of visits by far come from search engines.

What makes followers valuable is the different kind of interaction they provide in comparison to the anonymous visits from the other crowd. Some like off a fresh post in a kind of “been here” way. Others even comment and in rare cases a real discussion starts. That’s what I like most.

Sadly, not all followers are active anymore – some of them seem to have gone offline, others don’t appear other the years. I understand that interests and participation change, as I know from my own behavior.

Nonetheless, the newer followers, mostly from this and last year, are very active. This is very motivating for me, and nearly half the fun when writing reviews. It’s a tight crew, the blogging followers!

What are your experience with followers?

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Monster • 2020 • Thriller novelette by Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

First sentence: No one at the Guiyang airport speaks English. 

Synopsis: Cecily is a gene editing professor who searches her best friend Andrew from high school. He’s hiding in a remote province of China (“like the Oklohama of China”) where he’s testing his bioengineering on other people. 

FBI and CIA hope that Cecily will find him and get the serum’s formula. 

Review: I haven’t read much by Kritzer. Her awards winning “Cat Pictures Please” was only ok for me (review), but I liked the other contestant for this year’s short story award “Little Free Library” (review).

Andrew of course is the monster as an unethical, murderous researcher. But there are other monsters in the story which are exposed in the retrospections to their high school years in the 1980s : Cecily herself, because she doesn’t use bookmarks when reading paperbacks and even dog-ears pages. Bullying boys because Cecily is nerdy, just like Andrew (I just wondered why it’s only boys).

The story didn’t convince me. Maybe there was too much exposition, maybe Andrew’s coming-of-monster isn’t motivated enough. Or it might be the nerd references eagerly trying to win over genre fans. 

I didn’t mark the story as Near Future SF, because CRISPR and other elements are readily available and who knows what in those backyard labs is happening.

The inevitable ending was too predictable, I’d have preferred to see an open ending.

Meta: isfdb. Available online at Clarkesworld. Finalist for the Hugo Award.

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Starship Troopers • 1959 • Military SF novel by Robert A. Heinlein

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

I‘ve read this in 2013 and reviewed it at Goodreads. I thought it a good idea to copy it to this blog.

In this coming-of-age novel, Robert A. Heinlein (RAH) describes the military education of young Juan “Johnnie” Rico to privateer and then to higher ranks of a future infantry. This book is more on the moral side than on the action part – though there are a couple of fighting scenes against the intelligent arachnoid colonies with all the tactics nitty gritty that you might expect of such a story. They feel more than the fifth of the book that they make up because they are embedded into the overall militaristic descriptions.

The education part will surely remind you of movies that you’ve seen, like “Full Metal Jacket’s” first 15 minutes describing a typical boot camp. But this is no Vietnam war, but a space opera – needing power suit exoskeletons, which are described very detailed here and foreign planets, aliens and space war.

More interesting than the scifi equipment are the social descriptions – democracy changed towards a meritocracy: only a couple of citizens can vote and you become only citizen by having volunteered for military duty. In this society, civic virtue has an important value and RAH discusses this via capital punishment examples, suffrage and war. In some parts, the scifi novel reads more like a political essay and Heinlein seems to manifest himself in Johnnie’s “History and Moral Philosophy” teacher.

Johnnie’s spiritual and mental evolvement is clearly and very satisfactorily described. There are a couple of influences that the young man has to balance – like the relationship to his parents. I didn’t find a real disillusioned part leading Johnnie into a catastrophe from which he could evolve. In this, the novel fails a bit as a coming-of-age novel and the resulting moral decisions that Johnnie takes are sometimes a deus-ex-machina.

The story part came a bit short – it was predictable and not that involving. Thankfully, the novel is quite short – probably because it has been published as a serial in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction” first.
Some morale descriptions are for me nowadays over the counter – like the lengthy explanations for the need to spank kids. Some others are heavily militaristic and tended even towards fascism.
But the explanations were never easy and as such stimulate thoughts. This is surely no novel that you just read and then set aside!

A true SF Masterwork which still stays in print and is worth reading after all those years!

Meta: isfdb. It won the Hugo.

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The Snow Queen • 1980 • Science Fantasy novel by Joan D. Vinge

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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I’ve read and reviewed this novel in November 2013. Enjoy the unaltered text copied over from GoodReads.

Wow, now look at that cover art by Michael Whelan!

This Science Fantasy novel follows the plot line of Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, with main characters Moon as Gerda, Sparks as Kai, and Arienrhod as the eponymous protagonist. All of those characters stay a bit flat, I wasn’t able to really connect to them. Characters’ names sound a bit silly first, but they fit their “Summer” savage cultural background and contrast “Winters'” and otherworlders’ names.
Beside Andersen’s story, the novel steers toward one very important recurring point of history, bringing together several cultures in one event called “the Change”: The winter queen goes into the sea and is replaced by the summer queen, all watched by two otherworld cultures. The Hegemony’s interest in the planet of Tiamat has to do with the sentient creatures called “Mers”: Slaughtering them brings the “water of life” which halts aging.

Best part of the novel is the carefully crafted setting. I wouldn’t say impressive, though: The city of Tiamat is just a standard space port city which isn’t really coming to live. But I like the background with Old Empire reaching into the cultural clash of Winter/Summer, the concept of Sibyls with its SF and fantasy interpretations, and smaller details like animal pit fights or relationship of Hegemony and Snow Queen’s court.

There are several additional characters involved, some of them where far more interesting than the main characters: Police commander Jerusha and her crew, a group of smugglers, and one underground character with her roboter.

Main plot and side plots are mostly predictable, e.g. when Sparks arrives in the city of Carbuncle and his first experiences there.
I don’t mind that the main plot isn’t an outstanding feature in this novel. I didn’t expect it to be, because it should follow or respect Anderson’s lead.

Tension arc didn’t work for me at all: An overlong exposition taking more than half of the novel would have led to less than 3 stars. It was only the last 30% or so where I really got involved and where I came to the conclusion that I like the novel. In my opinion, the novel doesn’t deserve the amount of 1981’s awards (Hugo and Locus).


Update from 2021:I haven’t read anything else from Joan D. Vinge (not to be confused with Vernor Vinge!), and looking at her isfdb bibliography, it became very quiet around her since 2013. 

Meta: isfdb. It won Hugo and Nebula Awards.

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The City & the City • 2009 • Fantasy novel by China Miéville

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’ve read and reviewed this novel in February 2015. Enjoy the unaltered text copied over from GoodReads.

I’ve read Perdido Street Station and Embassytown from Miéville. So far I’ve got mixed feelings about his literary ambitions, not every novel seems to suit my needs. What I’ve learned from this experience is to NOT read him in English but let translators do the hard work.
Foreclosing further analysis, I have to say that the German translation is an easy read in contrast to other works from the author. I could have read it in original language and it might have been better this time, because the translation changes the work’s character somewhat – it smooths swearing and rude language.

Yes, Miéville confuses the reader initially somewhat, throws him directly into some strange situation without initial explanation – this is his usual style and you only have to accept it. This time it is two nations interleaving in one city. Residents from one nation have to ignore – “unsee” – residents, buildings, cars etc. from the other nation even though they might be neighbors. They do not only unsee, but also unhear, unsmell: “Total” areas are entirely in one city, in which the observer resides; “alter” areas must be un-sensed, because they are completely in the other city. Between these are areas of “crosshatch”. Any violation against un-sensing, called a “breach”, brings up a secret police acting independently from the nations’ police.
This is the weird setting and Miéville does a marvelous job by transporting this weirdness easily and naturally to the reader without large information dumps.

The plot is centered around a police procedural investigating the murder of a female archaelogy student who was interested in some mysterious third nation. It follows main protagonist Inspector Tyador Borlú through older Beszel (I always think about East-Berlin), through transitioning center “Copula Hall” to modern Ul Qoman (West-Berlin) where he assists Ul Qoman’s inspector.

Plot is mainly driven by dialogue. That doesn’t mean that Miéville neglects the settings – all aspects of this weird city, its residents and their cultural background are brought to life. I didn’t expect the ending, Miéville resolves every thread.
There are some side-characters which are somewhat neglected, but the main protagonist Borlú is very sympathetic and his motivations are clear.

Miéville touches some philosphical questions like national identity, but doesn’t dive too deep to get lengthy or boring.

In summary, I think the novel deserved all those awards. It is a page turner with exactly the right size, and I higly recommend it.

Update from 2021:I haven’t read anything since 2015 by Mieville. Actually, this is the first blog entry for this author. It’s become quiet concerning new books or stories around him for the last couple of years.  

Meta: isfdb. It won a range of awards, the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, Clarke, BSFA, Kitschies, Neffy, Kurd Lasswitz. 

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Among Others • 2011 • Fantasy novel by Jo Walton

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I’ve read and reviewed this novel in November 2013. Enjoy the unaltered text copied over from GoodReads.

“You are REALLY going to read this book?” My wife pointed at the pink dust cover.
“Ahm…” I felt embarassed.
“That’s a girl’s book!”
Obviously, I was in trouble. I have no problems with my masculinity, but being confronted with girl’s books I usually shy away.
“Well, only real men read pink.”
I’d have skipped this book in book shops or even brought it to the “right” shelf. But then, there is this “Awards, Awards!!!” stuff printed on the cover and although not every Nebula Award has my full support it could be a sign that it’s worth reading.
But I bought it blindly.

So, here it is and already humbling me.

And it’s troubling me – because it starts with an Aeneis citation in latin. I had latin courses for a couple of years, so I tried to translate this one. “Et haec, olim, meminisse iuvabit!”
And failed.
And I googled. And downloaded the whole fucking Aeneis from Virgil to find the reference: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/227/22
And found that the citation missed one word. “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” – A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember this.

I wonder if all of those references and citation are correct in that book. It’s just starting and already flooding me with book shelf pictures. In the end there were 162 book references (cf http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/12… ).
Though I really like book references in narratives, I come to the following conclusion: Having only read 21 of all those referenced books I cannot follow all of her “discussions”. This frustrates me. The references are almost everywhere elliptical – they are too short for me to really care. I really don’t want to look up every single book when reading this text just to stumble over the next reference a couple of sentences ahead.

This is a male thing: comparing each other and see who has got the longest… book shelf.
This book starts pink and is already very masculine in the second chapter. But it continues and ends in a very teenager girlish fashion. Not my thing at all.

Can someone please explain to me why I have to endure this overlong family description on 9/30/79? On the next page she writes: “Maybe I ought to draw a diagram. But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to remember who these people are”.
Just to continue with this stuff on 10/5/79.
Walton screwed me up, I’m very glad I skipped those pages.

I’m no action fetishist (e.g. I really like Little, Big with it’s slow narrative). I just didn’t get into the story and the character. I didn’t like the showdown, in fact I found it quite boring. I didn’t lem it but it wasn’t worth the read.

Update from 2021: I just checked that book list again and found that I’ve read 39 of those books, up from 21. 

Meta: isfdb

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Awards and Lists

The utility page of this blog titled “Awards and Lists” has seen some love. I’ve added the entries for

Both have links to my reviews, and I plan to keep the list updated.

Also, you might have noticed that lately I’ve transferred a few older reviews from GoodReads to this blog. Most of those reviews are for novels from the award lists.

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Ancillary Justice • 2013 • Space Opera novel by Anne Leckie

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Rating: 2 out of 5.

I’ve read and reviewed this novel in November 2013. Enjoy the unaltered text copied over from GoodReads.

“Grab handgun, shoot tyran'”, that’s the novel’s essence. It isn’t that easy, of course: the tyrant as well as the protagonist is facetted in multiple alter egos, which forms the main idea. Ann Leckie is really inventive how to bring this concept to the reader. And the tyrant is specially armored, the story spans several time levels and interleaved point of views.

My main problem: The novel simply didn’t grab me at all – it was more urgent for me to cuddle my cat or do my tax than to read it. It took 60% to get started, a couple of chapters involved acquiring a handgun.
It was more like a short stories’ open ending without the surprising factor: You’ve seen it coming a loooong way and then it was quite abrupt for the huge setup.
It should really have been way shorter. For a novel of that length, there should have been more closure than what was given to us. And I simply don’t accept it as a series’ start.

World-building was fine – with religions and politics. But when the protoganist isn’t interested in performing the religious activities, why should I? I simply didn’t care, didn’t get involved. It was only at the last third of the novel that I was looking forward to know how it would proceed.

Prose was fine as well – not too elaborate, not too trivial.

In the end, I couldn’t say that I like it. It probably is a work that you have to read considering the recent hype about it. Maybe it will grab some awards or be considered as a classic later on. It has the potential of being read twice, maybe I’ll pick up some other factors that will drive my interest. But currently, I have to say that it was just ok.
 

Update from 2021: That novel was in fact awarded with several awards: Arthur C. Clarke Award, BSFA, Hugo, Kitschies, Locus, and Nebula. I didn’t read it again since then and don’t plan to. But I have read two stories by her: Africanfuturism novelette “The Justified” (review) and Fantasy short story “We Continue” (review), and both were really good.

Meta: isfdb

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Swarm • 1982 • Transhuman SF novelette by Bruce Sterling

★★★★☆

Synopsis: In the 23rd century, Humanity has fallen in two opposing fractions: gene-editing Shapers, striving for optimised biology and genius intelligence, and the Mechanists, replacing anatomy with cybernetic parts. This story follows Shapers, who have found a competitive advantage in dealing with an alien race.

They buy transport to the Beteigeuse system, where they want to investigate an even more alien race, the Swarm. That one has been around for millions of years, consisting of ant like beings which aren’t intelligent and don’t have a language besides their pheromones.

The Shaper agent thinks that he can exploit them. He only needs to test the workings of his artificially produced pheromones and bring back the gene sequence of the aliens. An endless army of mindless, efficient workers as biological machines would sure enough help the Shapers dominate humanity.

Well, the Swarm has survived a long time, and humans aren’t the first ones to exploit them.

Review: This is Sterling‘s first sold story, which appeared in the Magazine of SF&F, just when the age of Cyberpunk started. He is one of the founders of the subgenre, and created another one together with William Gibson, namely Steampunk, with his novel The Difference Engine. Boy, was I confused when I read that in the 1980s and all I wanted was cyberpunk, cyberpunk, cyberpunk.
This is also not cyberpunk, but Transhuman SF. The Shaper/Mechanist conflict is brought out in other stories of that setting, especially in the novel Schismatrix. Here, it is only a highly interesting background noise motivating the Shaper agent‘s moves.
Far more interesting are the inner workings of that other extreme of evolution, the Swarm. Sterling makes a great case of „intelligence comes into the way of life“, discussed from the perspective of several angles. That’s how I love my SF: exotic setting, some sensawonda, intelligent sociological discussions, and enough plot to keep me reading on. When I just thought that the conflict would be scientist versus secret agent, the story took yet another twist.

This is a fun story to read, and a great introduction to Sterling‘s works.

Meta: isfdb. I’ve read it it in the Big Book of SF.

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Gridlinked • 2001 • Space Opera novel by Neal Asher

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

As you can see in the cover illustration, I‘ve read this novel in German. It’s title makes more sense to me than the original one, it translates back to „The Dragon of Samarkand“, addressing both the central planet Samarkand in this novel, and the mysterious alien protagonist, the „Dragon“. 
Dragons are usually around in Fantasy books, right? This one is the SF version of it, a kilometer large entity, capable of spitting large amounts of energy, having fits, and talking in riddles. 
The counter part is Earth Central Security Agent Ian Cormac, who many readers have called a „James Bond in Space“. Looking back at the time it was published, that characterisation is correct: breathless action, explosions, fancy weapons, exotic places, and always humanity to be saved. Even the mad villain is there. Only trope missing is the Bond girl. 
Cormac is deployed to investigate a huge explosion of an interstellar transmitter called the Runcible, ripping planet Samarkand out of the interstellar network and killing ten thousand people, and have his team install a backup transmitter.

Hurdles in his missions are first of all his voluntary disconnection from his brain link to the overall AI network – thus the original title „Gridlinked“. Cormac has been connected too long and lost parts of his humanity already. Now he wants to get clean, but that comes at the price of having to think for himself and physically ask around for help.

A second problem for fast resolution of his mission is his antagonist Arian Pelter, a violent separatist, who wants to take revenge because Cormac killed his sister.

Back in 2001, this fast-paced action thriller was praised for its cutting-edge technology. It has AI everywhere, not only as planet-governing entities but also in tiny weapons, and embodied in fighting golems. The previously clear distinction between living and machines is dissolved with biotech, the singularity is hinted at. And boys, that amount of weapons will surely satisfy every nerd discussion. 

But action alone doesn’t rescue this novel. In those twenty years, it has become old in several aspects. One of them is the story‘s core, technology: The way AIs are understood, work oftentimes disconnected, need to be self-aware. All that hasn’t seen our development of the last twenty years, the breakthrough of AI after long years of negligence. AI networks in the cloud, and the Singularity have been discussed often times since then, and found innovative and far fresher novelisations. Compared to other samples of the time like Altered Carbon, this part of the novel feels ancient already. Move on, nothing to be seen here!

The novel alternates every twenty pages between Cormac‘s and his opponent Peter‘s POVs. What might drive forward the plot and keep up the pace, is broken every.single.time by a one or two side long exposition explaining yet another technology. I have to bring up Wikipedia, because that has seen life in the same year the novel was published. Those expositions were kind of narrated in an annoying voice which probably should entertain but let me start skimming.

Remember that Bond comparison? Even that old hero has seen a – lo, and behold – background story with character development and (gasp!) emotions. Cormac is far more traditional in that regard, and this also doesn’t stand the test of time. Homeopathic doses of emotions or character development on his side. Not that his sidekicks would have a character to speak of, they are all replaceable or die away anyway. 

The plot is interesting but isn’t resolved at all in this volume. One would probably have to wade through the mindless muck of five books to see the end of it. As you might have guessed, I won’t do that at all and call it quits. The world has seen better, more intelligent Space Operas than this one.

There‘s a lot of quality in this book, just not the one that keeps me interested. I won’t give up on Asher, yet, and might try a newer book from him. A standalone, preferably, maybe the „Technician“?

Meta: isfdb

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