Category Archives: Book

The Nightmare Stacks: Fresh Laundry

I am, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, wary of long-running franchises. There are a few I persist in following anyway, like the Dresden Files and Honor Harrington, that nevertheless exhibit clear signs of eventually stagnating or losing their way.

Still, these have earned some benefit of the doubt from me, and another one of them has been the Laundry novels by Charles Stross, about the exploits of the British secret service in charge of defending the country and the world from occult menaces from beyond.

I’ve commented in my articles on the previous three books that the series has seemed to be stalling out somewhat. The Apocalypse Codex seemed to come around for another go at the same scenario as the book before, the Fuller Memorandum. The Rhesus Chart and the Annihilation Score meanwhile suffered from continually reusing the same plot point of rooting out an enemy within which the series had already done to death. And the sense of escalation toward unknowable menaces from beyond space and time seemed to plateau out in favour of smaller campaigns against half-related threats.

In addition, the series wandered from its main character, the geeky and sardonic Bob Howard, to other point of view characters, and gave the villains point-of-view chapters, which rather undermined the effect of Bob’s comic voice on the one hand and undermined the shadowy horror of the enemy on the other hand.

But Bob was in oversight in Apocalypse Codex and Rhesus Chart, and his wife Mo was the main character of the Armageddon Score. But in the new book, the Nightmare Stacks, Bob doesn’t appear at all.


In the Nightmare Stacks, the main character is Alex Schwartz, a top-flight computer whiz recruited by the Laundry in the Rhesus Chart after becoming the victim of a daemonic possession called PHANG Syndrome. By the Laundry novels’ definition, he’s a vampire. Along with other members of the Laundry, including several friends of Bob’s, he’s involved in the cleanup efforts after the Laundry was gutted by its various moles. In the process, he’s being brought further into the Laundry’s tangled web, and learning more of their secrets.

The particular one that haunts him as it does the rest of the Laundry is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the code name for when, as H.P. Lovecraft would have it, “the stars are right” and reality begins a period of distortion and accessibility to cosmic intelligences of alien malice.

However, we learn, there is a whole slew of CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios, and another one, CASE NIGHTMARE RED, has arisen – invasion by alien civilization.

Seizing on an opportunity presented by the breaking down of cosmic barriers, the survivors of the Morningstar Empire, an alien-fey civilization, determine to leave their dying world, laid waste by some of the cosmic horrors mentioned above, and invade ours, conquering it to forestall their own extinction.
The All-Highest leader of the Empire sends his daughter, his spymaster, to assume a human identity and infiltrate the leadership. In the end, she ends up enticing Alex, but in so doing she finds that her assignment may also be her only chance to survive out from under the shackles of the geas spells that bind everyone in her society.

Fundamentally, the problem I’m increasingly having with the Laundry novels is a sense that Stross started this escalation of cosmic menace – what the third book called ‘a hierarchy of horrors’ – but that he (or more probably, his editors) decided that the escalation was happening faster than they wanted, and now he’s making up new spinoff plots to draw this out longer. The introduction of CASE NIGHTMARE RED annoyed me, because of its sense of ‘wait, forget about that thing we’ve been building up for book after book, look at this instead!’

That said, the book also overcame a lot of my other complaints. It isn’t following the plot of finding a mole – one of the main characters, Cassie the spy, is trying to become one, but it doesn’t pan out that way. Moreover, despite losing both Bob and Mo at this point, the supporting characters that are sticking around are ones I like, and I like Alex. And not just because we share a name. His story of trying to find purpose in life and his self-hatred over his condition makes for an engaging read. In a strange way, the scene featuring his family drama was touching and supported a theme of human goodness, as contrasted against Cassie’s origins, as well as the pettier side of humanity as shown, somewhat, by his parents. On a larger canonical note, it’s kind of interesting that, whenever Bob is mentioned (having moved up the ladder of the organization) Alex’s reaction is a lot like Bob’s reaction to his boss Angleton in the early books.

I am also, as I’ve occasionally hinted in the past, a sucker for redemption stories, and Cassie goes through a very persuasive one which I really enjoyed. She’s quite a charming character – her little tic of answering “Yesyes” instead of just “yes” is weirdly cute and she and Alex make a sweet supernatural couple. At the same time, she’s no damsel and is the one to finalize the solution to the crisis.

On the flipside, the Morningstar Empire is very disturbing. In the classic Laundry fashion, they’re a crossover of modern technology and mysticism. They are essentially alien elves, with many of the more sinister of the tropes of the Fair Folk. It kinds of reminds me of the elves in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Discworld sub-series. They have ‘dragons’ and ‘horses’ which are merely conventional names for something much scarier, and the brutal system of subjugation-by-magic they employ is genuinely scary as well as repugnant. While in the past books giving point-of-view time to the villains reduced their scariness, the buildup to the invasion and its progress is chilling, suspenseful and heartbreaking as we skip to innocent people – airline pilots, police, cosplayers at an anime convention notably – being wiped out by the invaders and even our occult defenses misfiring.

Okay, so in summary this is a good book, no doubt. While the series at large has begun to try my patience, and this continues with the book’s cliffhanger ending, it has a feel-good element I appreciated, good characters and makes use of events of past books to build this one. I haven’t heard a peep out of the Dresden Files or Honor Harrington series for a while, but in the meantime, the third of my favourite long-runners triumvirate is soldiering on.

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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Book


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Leviathan Wakes: A Bleak Expanse

Hard Sci Fi. I’d be the first to admit that I’m susceptible to the idea that ‘scientifically accurate’ in sci-fi goes hand-in-hand with ‘boring.’ The restrictions of real laws of physics tend to place limits on things like speed and range of places that can be visited.

I think that the reason for this is that I’ve read a lot of such stories that felt more like textbooks on how life in space would really be rather than being actual stories about people living in that. Honor Harrington occasionally becomes a borderline example of this, but I do recall some others.

A while ago I was involved in a conversation about human evolution, where it was wondered aloud if humanity could ever diverge again into separate species. I remarked that it would only be possible if separate human population were isolated for a very long period, such as if we were dispersed among other planets. At this, a colleague commended to me a book that, in part, depicts exactly that.


Leviathan Wakes is the first in the Expanse series, which has apparently also given rise to a new television series.

In it, humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. Mars and the settlements on the large bodies of the asteroid belt have become semi-independent nations. ‘Belters’ regard those from ‘down the [gravity] well’ as arrogant, exploitative and dangerous. People have been living in low gravity and pressurized environments for so long that their physique and culture have developed accordingly.

Holden is an officer on a comet-mining ship who loses friends in a violent attack. He openly declares his suspicion that Mars has committed an atrocity against the Belters, and thus gets drawn into the escalating Cold War between the ‘well’ and the ‘belt.’

Miller is a police detective on Ceres Station in the Belt. He’s put on a quiet little favour-job for one of the corporations that runs Ceres to track down their daughter, who has run away on some idealistic crusade. His investigation is thrown upside-down by the esclation of the interplanetary conflict.

Miller, Holden and his crew, each beset by tragedy, end up following their respective, intertwining paths to discover the root of the events that are causing this potentially cataclysmic conflict between worlds: the conflict is merely a by-product of a discovery that will shake every kind of humanity to its core, and threaten its soul.

Over the Christmas break I finally watched Blade Runner end to end, and it struck me that this is what life off Earth would probably be like in that world. The Earth is described as overpopulated and exhausted, but powerful. Corporations, not governments, run the Belt stations like Ceres and Eros. Food is synthesized from non-photosynthetic sources like yeast and fungi – reminiscent of the protein rations used on Firefly as well.

Speaking of Firefly, lived-in, dingy, used-future aesthetics are in full swing here. Quarters on stations are called ‘holes,’ if that gives you some idea.

The futuristic science is awesome without breaking too many rules that I can spot: artificial gravity is only possible with certrifugal force or acceleration – and that’s usually really unpleasant for all concerned – weapons and ship-to-ship combat rely on acceleration, pressurized compartments, and guided missiles, and isn’t fought at whites-of-their-eyes close quarters, much like in Honor Harrington.

At the same time, unlike several sci-fi properties out there, technologies appear to have advanced apace with each other. Everyone has a ‘terminal,’ somewhere between a smartphone and the omni-tools of Mass Effect, and medical science has achieved immense precision and idiot-proof applicability. There’s a chapter where Holden and Miller both cop a huge radiation dose, and they have to be hooked up to a machine that spends hours stamping out the nascent cancers around their body, which it does flawlessly. There are also cocktails of drugs used regularly for mitigating accleration g-forces.

As for the story itself, apart from being in space, it is an awful lot like a noir detective story or political thriller – Holden being the everyman sucked into something bigger than himself, and Miller the jaded, hardboiled detective who finds his emotions consumed in a seemingly ordinary case.

Then the twist happens, and what I suppose must be the groundwork for the rest of the series is duly laid, which ties all the seemingly disparate threads together, and kicks this story up into Lovecraftian levels of disturbing.

The intricacy and cleverness of the plot further allows us to visit a number of facets of the civilization these people live in. It’s a somewhat bleak depiction, making us seem rather petty, not to mention tiny and vulnerable, but still makes the case for the better angels of our nature, especially via Holden.

I like Leviathan Wakes for its worldbuilding, themes and atmosphere. It left me emotionally drained and satisfied. And yet, strangely enough, I found I don’t have a powerful urge to read the rest of them. Maybe to watch the TV show, but not much.

This puzzles me. Maybe I’m still in the post-holiday funk, but more than that I find that, despite the rich and detailed world – worlds – the characters themselves are strangely boring.

Miller’s sort of the same-old jaded, over-the-hill cop who can’t seem to make a difference. Holden’s the more idealistic and appealing of the two of them, but the idealist looking into the abyss is likewise a bit tired to me.

There’s also something about the way the book treats women that I find subtly icky. The relaxed, rational attitudes about interpersonal relationships are kind of nice, I guess. Nonetheless, the only two women Holden has on his crew he ends up sleeping with, and one of them dies to give him the old woman-in-a-proverbial-fridge to avenge. And getting together with his comrade Naomi seems like the standard hero’s reward that’s danced around until the usual boxes of dramatic tribulations are ticked. If he’s a very good hero, he gets the sex. Ho hum.

Miller is even worse, in a way. He’s sent to track down this runaway rich girl basically to kidnap her and send her home; in piecing together her life and fate, he claims to have fallen in love with her, and sees a vision of her that talks to him as his obsession grows. You can’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Miller’s meant to be a broken man, but this kind of pedastalling of a woman comes across as far more creepy than tragic to me. While it’s sort of understandable since he’s a jaded old cop and all, I also find it faintly obnoxious the way he persistently refers to the sex workers he encounters on his regular beat as ‘whores.’ Call me a Social Justice Warrior, but I’ve always thought that a word better suited to the mouths of villains. And when he finally tracks the rich girl down the ensuing discovery is so grotesque as to almost constitute gore porn.

So Leviathan Wakes is a beautifully conceived setting and plot, which kept me guessing right until the end, but as much as I enjoyed it, the characters inhabiting it feel like they could have been written decades ago with no appreciable difference, and lot of things a story should have in this day and age, this one doesn’t. And this costs the book the sharpness or spark that would have taken it from ‘functionally good’ to ‘outstanding,’ if you see what I mean. I shall learn from it what I can, but having done so, I feel I have very little use left for it.

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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Book


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Terms of Enlistment: I’m On Board

I’m interested in writing, and if you want to write science fiction, then a handy resource is the website Atomic Rockets. Not exactly a wiki, but an extensive resource for scientific and artistic precedents for a number of tropes and tricks in the field of space settings, starships and futuristic tech.

Doing Science Fiction Spring a few months back gave me the idea of shopping around it looking for any names of authors I hadn’t heard of, and stumbled upon one that caught my eye as being a relatively recent military sci-fi, and a little different than most.

Terms of Enlistment by German-American author Marko Kloos features Andrew Grayson, a plebeian living in a decrepit, dead-end public housing project in the megacity that used to be Boston. He’s made up his mind to leave the foul air, squalid housing, black marketeering and inedible synthetic food dole to enlist in the military, as a way to make his fortune and as a final insult to his dying deadbeat father, who himself washed out of the Basic Training program.

Grayson endures the rigors of Basic, has a heady romance with a hotshot young pilot-to-be, and then is dismayed to find himself assigned to the Territorial Army, rather than to the spacegoing navy or marines. His duty is to fight agents of minor governments and rebels, proxies of the other super blocs running the Earth, and sometimes his own fellow plebs when they rise up.

However, following a disastrous fight against uncannily well-armed rioters in Detroit, Grayson narrowly avoids being scapegoated with the help of his highly-honoured sergeant and is transferred to being a technical rating in the navy. But no sooner are his beloved and he reunited than they are sent to a colony world under threat, and find themselves in the middle of the very first alien invasion humankind has ever undergone.

If I seem to have given a rather more indepth explanation of the plot than usual, it’s because any less would make this story seem a lot more two dimensional than it is. It’s written in first person, but otherwise is the first in a series written in the classic ‘Military Career’ narrative that includes such vaunted series as Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe and Honor Harrington.

In that context, the plot structure of the story is a bit odd. Not bad, just odd. Grayson starts out in the Territorials, has two engagements, is in the process of learning the ropes, hits his first crisis and…transfers to another branch. All the characters built up around him are set aside – not discarded, but no longer active in the story – and it’s as if it all starts over again. The author is playing a long game here, and one supposes that the first round of buildup is going to prove important later. Still, it would be nice if I had some assurance of that. My personal preference is that the first book in a series should be able to stand on its own. Sabriel is a good example of this, as are longer series like the Laundry and Dresden Files and the early Honor Harrington books. But even books like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are structured in such a way that the narrative is tied off at the end – you know there’s more to come, but you’ve been satisfied for the time being. Ending on a complete cliffhanger – also something Leviathan and Divergent do – don’t so much entice you to read the next book as require you to.

That said, if I was going to be required to read this series, I wouldn’t mind. It reminds me of a lot of things. The government dole and dilapidated housing Grayson rises from reminds me of the dolists from the People’s Republic of Haven in Honor Harrington. The dismal lifestyle on a polluted Earth and the popularity of exodus to new colonies among the stars evokes Blade Runner.

It’s interesting to note that the author has himself done soldiering. And that’s probably behind the fact that while it has resemblances to both, I find it more palatable than, say Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers (the movie, that is).

A lot of the story is taken up with Grayson’s endurance of Basic, the initial training course that tests new recruits before they’re dispatched to their service branches and more specialized training. But it’s kind of interesting and nuanced to show the trainers as tough-but-fair, the training intensive but not inhumane.

Despite occasional echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the society – a huge underclass in a world of political super-blocs operating under limited rules of conflict – there is no political indoctrination or brainwashing. Despite the echoes of Ender’s Game – a young man confronted with the oncoming threat to humankind – the uniformed characters are rough-edged, flawed, but well-rounded characters, not a monotony of violent psychopaths. They also develop esprit de corps, respecting and working with each other, rather than being trained the Ender’s Game/Divergent way of fighting and bullying one another.

At the same time, the society has noticeably changed in positive ways as well. Nobody bats an eye at gender integration of the military – as in Starship Troopers, even the showers are co-ed – and enormous leaps in technology have taken place.

I suppose if anything I’m not completely sold on the nanny-state dystopia that Grayson grows up in, when a cyber punk coporatocracy a la Blade Runner seems a lot more relevant (and likely) at this point in history, and in the setting as depicted, but that’s dangerously close to the ‘not what I would have written’ style of critique. I do like the idea that terraforming other planets has rendered them habitable but not exactly familiar or pleasant, and the aliens are, to put it mildly, quite unusual.

This is a young adult book, I think. There’s very little nuanced political commentary of a work aimed at older readers. It is interesting and varied, not ultra-profound, but a fascinating everyman perspective, not relentlessly bleak or loudly ideological. At the same time, it is, essentially, a jolly good read.

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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in Book


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The Annihilation Score: Not Quite the Crescendo

I’ve intimated in past posts that I’m skeptical of long-running series. I’ve borne with a couple of them – Honor Harrington, the Dresden Files, and enjoyed both. But stringing them out eventually reduces them to echoes.

And I’m a little worried that another favourite series might be heading the same way. But I’ve not given it up, or I’d not still be here.

I was pleased to welcome back Charles Stross’ Laundry Files: the exploits of the British secret department in charge of preventing incursions by supernatural alien intelligences and the humans enthralled to them.

After the last two books, I was getting a little annoyed about how the bigger context of the impending cosmic alignment disaster – known in-story as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN – kept getting stalled in the interest of telling smaller-scale stories that seemed to be sideshows both for characters and for the main mythology events.

While a certain amount of this is true for the new book, the Annihilation Score, it manages to have a lot of interesting stuff going on all the same. Not least because, quite unexpectedly, the point-of-view character is no longer Bob, the geeky computer sorcerer. It’s his wife.

Dominique O’Brien – Mo to most people – a philosopher, violinist and combat epistemologist has been, since the second Laundry book, the custodian of a sinister violin. Molded from human bone and empowered by the agonies of the victims sacrificed to build it, it is nevertheless a powerful weapon for the Laundry to drive back the creeping horrors from beyond. However, the cost to her sanity and the changes wrought on Bob by the events of previous books have, combined with the incredible stress and trauma of their duties, severely damaged their marriage.

At the same time as she copes with this, Mo is thrust into a new challenge. The effects of the sea change in the fabric of reality are becoming impossible to conceal from the general public. In particular, a lot of people are showing signs of unusual powers – superpowers, in fact. And keeping the lid on it is out of the question as a result. But, rather than operate openly, the Board of the Laundry puts Mo in charge of a front organization in charge of recruiting superheroes to aid the police, or to deal with the ones who won’t. Thrown together with some persons who have had entanglements with her husband, and a dashing police chief, Mo’s greater enemies, more than any wannabe supervillain, are her own trauma and psychological damage, the violin tempting her further into darkness, and a dastardly conspiracy within the British…

Oh, no, not again.

See, the perennial problem with the Laundry Files lately is that they keep reverting to the ‘enemy in our own ranks’ plot. Four of the books and two of the novellas have already done this in one form or another. It’s getting to the point where it seems like Britain is in more danger from itself than from Nyarlathotep.

At the same time as it keeps repeating itself, the novels are also wandering from what made them so effective. Evoking the Lovecraftian mythos, speaking of alien intellects and the ghosts of civilizations millions of years old, lurking at the edges of reality, made the books seriously scary. But the buildup of that mythos – a ‘hierarchy of horrors’ to use a phrase from the Fuller Memorandum – sort of plateaued out during the Apocalypse Codex. Ever since then it seems like the threat remains small groups of supernaturally-enhanced people. People just aren’t scary the way cosmic alien deities are scary, simple as that.

If it weren’t for that, it wouldn’t matter so much that the books also aren’t as funny as they used to be. Stross writes very witty dialogue, but seen through Bob’s or Mo’s deteriorating mental health, the collision of supernatural weirdness and workaday procedure and form-filling just isn’t very funny anymore either.

Having said all that, I could scarcely put this book down. The Cosmic Horror element is preserved somewhat by the violin – Lecter, as Mo calls it – getting inside her head like a combination of Cthulhu and the One Ring. The problem is that the main mystery gets put on hold for a long time while Mo deals with personal trauma and on-the-job stress, so the ambience of chill creepiness has to be built up very quickly in the run-up to the climax.

That’s not to say that Mo’s personal trials aren’t good reading: her PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares and workaholism are very persuasive and sympathetic. At the same time, her strength and professionalism in the midst of it makes her an admirable character. Her anger and resentment at the way the Laundry runs people ragged and the way she and other professional women are treated is intense and moving – a bit more feminist propaganda to add to the heap, one hopes. There’s a certain amount of humour surrounding public relations, superhero tropes and office politics, though not an awful lot.

It’s kind of interesting the way that Mo is put in charge of a primarily female team – there’s even a mention of the Bechdel Test in dialogue – in a way that suggests a theme about the tribulations of professional women. Mo’s tribulations aren’t over yet, although there’s a promise of her work expanding in scope in stories to come. Hope is also lent for hers and Bob’s relationship as she starts reaching a level on par with what he reached. Too soon to know for sure though.

I quite enjoyed the Annihilation Score – it made good use of groundwork laid in previous books, gave us something new and a fresh perspective by putting Mo front and centre. That said, I feel like the personal/political drama and the Cosmic Horror story keep jockeying for space against each other, so that it isn’t clear which is the A or B plot. Still, nothing deal-breaking has happened. And as I’ve said in the past, the Laundry Files tend to demand a few re-reads before you can make sense of them, so my first impression may improve.

So, like Mo, I’ll keep calm and carry on.

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Posted by on July 28, 2015 in Book


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The Mote in God’s Eye

I’m sad to say that Science Fiction Spring has become a bit harder going than I’d hoped. Notwithstanding the interruption of something as big as Age of Ultron and something as fascinatingly pointless as a terrible trailer for a movie of an 80’s cartoon, my biggest hurdle was getting into a book which, after years of reading Honor Harrington and Warhammer 40,000 spinoff novels, I rapidly realized was one of their ancestors.

The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published 1974 is one of those sci-fi novels I’ve heard name-dropped about a quadrillion times and so I resolved that, since I was going on a science fiction literature kick this spring, it would be on the list.

At the outset, however, I was rapidly starting to feel like I’d already read it because a lot of later works clearly owe a lot to it.

In the far future, the Empire of Man is engaged in a struggle to reunite the worlds colonized by humankind – not unlike the Great Crusade of the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40K – led by its aristocratic military class – not unlike the Star Kingdom of Manticore in Honor Harrington – when the newly-reconquered New Caledonia system receives an unexpected visitor: a probe from a non-human civilization.

Surprised, fascinated and fearful in equal measure, the Empire marshalls an expedition to the the Mote, the homeworld of these strange beings. Meeting them, Captain the Lord Rod Blaine of the Imperial battlecruiser Douglas MacArthur and a mixed bag of military officers, statesmen and scientists begin the process of understanding these aliens, their nature, their intentions, and whether or not they pose a threat to the Empire.

What’s funny is that in addition to having the seed of subsequent franchises in it, Mote in God’s Eye also has a few winks toward past ones. A fallen and rebounding galactic empire smacks a little of Asimov’s Foundation, the engineer on MacArthur is a Scotsman (well, a New Caledonian, but never mind) a la Star Trek, and the great rebel enemy the Empire has recently defeated is the planet Sauron!

Part of the reason I found this story so hard to engage with at first is just that: it’s one of those stories that’s full of cliches because it helped invent or codify said cliches. My eyes occasionally slid off whole passages, taking in the gist only.

This isn’t helped by there being a slew of characters to keep track of, none of whom jump out as being the main character. In principle it’s Captain Blaine, but the story spreads the point of view between so many characters that he seems pushed to the background after a while.

Having said that, the dynamics of the story are actually pretty neat. This is very much an idea-focused story. The appearance or function of the warships isn’t dwelt on much, but Pournelle and Niven sought out physicist Dan Alderson to help them develop a scientifically acceptable interstellar drive system – known ever since as the Alderson Drive. During interplanetary cruises, the acceleration g-forces are accordingly brutal.

The aliens, the Moties, are fascinating, especially in the context of Star Trek, less than ten years over when this was written. One feature I’ve rarely if ever seen is that they’re physically asymmetrical! Their physiological strangness is artfully used to inform their psychology and their politics and history to create layers of mystery for the human characters to unravel.

It’s been brought to my attention that Mote in God’s Eye has a sequel, and the whole thing takes place within a larger fictional universe Pournelle created – the CoDominium, so called – and there are more developments promised between humanity and Moties. Given the tought slog I had with this book, I don’t think I’m in a hurry to read it. What is here, however, is quite intriguing. You can tell this was conceived and written in course of the Cold War. The Imperial Admiral riding herd on Captain Blaine is a more than a trifle paranoid about the Moties. The Empire’s government in general is all about assessing the potential threat of the Moties and nuking them into extinction isn’t off the table in case things go badly.

That said, the politics are portrayed pretty even-handedly, if a bit bleakly. Exterminating the Moties is written off more for PR reasons than moral ones. But trade with them is weighed against possible harm to their economy or the chance they might trade with seccessionist worlds. The Moties have a similar set of agendas and strategies to work through at their end. Realpolitik, in other words. It’s perhaps not particularly uplifting, but moderate and realistic, without pushing any political screed from the authors.

I can well understand why the Mote in God’s Eye is a classic, and I like exploring the pedigree of favourite stories of mine, so for all the difficulty I experienced getting into it, I found it enlightening and satisfying to read. Any sense of flatness to the story is partly it’s being from an old tradition of ideas over action or character, and because I’ve spent so much time admiring the foliage that sprang off this trunk.

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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Book


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Ciaphas Cain: Grim Lightness in 40K

Well, it’s high time for me to resume Science Fiction Spring. I’m chiselling away with a few of the classics, but on a lighter note, I decided to use the opportunity to delve into a franchise I’ve maintained a passing fascination with for several years.

Warhammer 40,000, or Warhammer 40K for short, is a tabletop roleplaying game, part of the family tree that goes back to Dungeons and Dragons. However, whereas Dungeons and Dragons is a game distilled from the milieu of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, Warhammer 40K is distilled from those of Frank Herbet and H.P. Lovecraft. It also differs in that it is played with miniature figurines, making it vaguely akin to a tabletop ancestor of the real-time strategy video game genre.

I’ve no intentions to play the game, but the spinoff materials interest me. The novels all have the same opening coda, which runs, in part, thusly:

“It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies…Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp…Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds…But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants — and far, far worse. To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable…Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war.”

In practical terms, the franchise is about providing a plethora of warriors, factions and weapon systems to pit against each other in the gameplay. Thematically, exactly what the franchise is about varies depending on who you ask. Is it a brutal subversion of optimistic visions of the future like Star Trek? A dark reflection of modern society? A little-boys-club pretend violencefest? A parody of same? A goofy sci-fi sendup of fantasy roleplaying game tropes? If it was first intended to be any one of these, I’m blowed if I can figure out which.

But despite its relentless bleakness and Game of Thrones-esque moral-dark-greyness, I’ve long found the general concept of 40K strangely fascinating. It has the benefit of having the original idea of showing the old-hat interstellar empire in its decline and a varied and rich aesthetic and mythology. And, having set this twilit scene, it has the potential to subvert itself to compelling effect.

Perhaps for that reason I found my way round to one of assorted novel series spun off from Warhammer 40,000 that has intentionally elected to have a bit of fun in the setting.

It’s not quite as intense or deranged as the covers make it look. I guess Grim Darkness is habit-forming for cover artists.

In the Imperial Guard, the main military arm of the Emperor’s forces, all units have commissars who maintain morale and discipline. Ciaphas Cain, Commissar of the 597th Valhallan Regiment, is unique in his profession in that he is very popular and liked by his personnel, not feared and hated. To hear him tell it, this is part of a cunning to survive the constant fighting his regiment is continually hurled into, allowing him to concentrate on getting safe, behind-the-lines assignments without having to worry about being fragged by his own people.

In the three books I’ve read of the currently-nine-book series – Caves of Ice, Duty Calls and Death or Glory – Cain routinely tries to take charge of the low-risk, secondary missions for the sake of avoiding the thick of the action, but inevitably he finds something even worse.

In Caves of Ice, the ravening Orks have invaded an industrial planet which Cain discovers is also a tomb of the sinister undead machines known as Necrons. The Orks menace another world in Duty Calls, and it transpires that there is another shadowy operation taking advantage of the mayhem. In Death or Glory, a hive fleet of the eldritch Tyranids is about to descend on yet another Imperial planet, but Cain discovers that a cult dedicated to Chaos and a renegade tech-priest are actually much bigger problems.

Noticing the pattern here? The latter two books do lay in the promise of something building on the horizon, as do the tongue-in-cheek footnotes added by Cain’s on-again-off-again girlfriend and editor of his memoirs. Whether any such does occur I’m not far enough in to tell. The fact that some of the books are lined up in order of the importance of clues thereof instead of the order in which the events happened to Cain suggest that such a finale is intended.

That said, as I implied, the books are the kind that basically tell the same story with different details filling in the blanks.

The books I was most reminded of were the Phule series by Robert Asprin. Cain is the slightly eccentric leader figure with a trusty assistant – in this case his malodorous attache Jurgen – and a few semi-regular supporting characters.

The books are light reading, and not terribly intricate, with one or two regulation twists. The humour is dry and not laugh-out-loud funny, mostly snarky remarks made by Cain in his memoirs. There are also a lot of coy references slipped it, to things like Star Wars, Monty Python, Firefly and, I think, in one case, Fawlty Towers. Moreso, the humour seems to be drawn from how Cain has, to invert an old joke, the heart of a coward but the legs of a hero, and how much he professes to hate that.

What does intrigue me about the books is the contrast between the lightness of tone and the bleakness of the setting. The dissonance isn’t dwelt on – I’m not even sure if it’s on purpose – but the pleasant conversation, camaraderie and occasional taste of the high life Cain is afforded makes him almost the equivalent of a middle-class everyman, witnessing the dreadful, strange and awe-inspiring events around him and the more extraordinary characters, while removed enough from them that he’s not a helpless, indoctrinated peon, nor a high-minded fanatic like the Space Marines who are 40K’s flagship characters. Equally, it’s hard to tell (if only because the authour isn’t trying very hard) to tell if Cain is really meant to be, as I assume, only fooling himself by insisting what a coward he really is, while being secretly rather good-hearted and even self-hating and traumatized – the latter particularly obvious whenever Necrons are on the prowl.

That said, from his position he merely regards the more exotic aspects of the setting with jaded disinsterest. Understandable given his station but not to the extent, usually, of saying much of profound meaning (although Death or Glory does a little of that). I suspect that if you’re an initiate of the franchise’s melodramatic, dark tone, then it is remarkable for the level-headed subversion of that convention. For an outsider, the idea of an everyman coping with threats on the scope of 40K is diverting but not deeply meangingful. And the characterization is slapdash at best, so exactly what Cain is meant to be beside a pile of wisecracks is difficult to tell.

Like the Phule series, the Ciaphas Cain books are fundamentally sci-fi nerd beach reading: shallow, fun, interesting, pleasant, forgettable, not helped by the fact that they are clearly meant for 40K fans and nobody else. Use of the sci-fi-religious terminology with no attempt to translate (phrases like ‘machine spirit,’ ‘cogitator’ or ‘enginseer’ for example) makes that clear enough. But what the heck, go for it if you want to kill some time with a book. Why not?

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Posted by on April 21, 2015 in Book


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Accelerando: Speeding Over the Edge

Spring has sprung and I’m settled back into my job.

With Spring comes turning things around, and I am inaugurating Science Fiction Spring.

As a teenager I threw myself into some of the best of Science Fiction – Star Trek of course, but also 2001: a Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010: the Year We Make Contact were far and away my favourite things to watch.

I tried to get into some of the literature as well: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End was the Book of the Year for me in Grade 7. I chanced upon C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet as well, and was introduced in Grade 9 to John Wyndham’s the Chrysalids.

Eventually this slid into my adolescent fondess for dystopia literature, and for many years I was a full-time fantasist. No bad thing, but lately I feel I’ve been neglecting science fiction, excepting Space Opera like Honor Harrington, so I’ve been harrying the interlibrary loan system to make up for this.

Oddly enough, my first destination was one that had a little common ground with Space Opera, and written by the only other sci-fi author I’ve been reading the last few years: Charles Stross, of the Laundry Files. The book is his standalone novel Accelerando.

In the advancing twenty-first century, three generations of the Macx family take it in their turn to live through the huge and rapidly snowballing changes in technology and society. As humans begin to live more and more in virtual worlds and nanotech networks, the Macx’s and their comrades struggle to stay ahead of the wave and forsee the consequences of the upcoming Singularity, the unification of human consciousness and computerized intelligence.

Accelerando does take place in space and at the same time serves an example of a particular genre of science fiction which I’ve never previously had much luck with: Cyberpunk.

In a family solidly populated with avid readers of cyberpunk godfather and part-time oracle William Gibson, I’ve never been able to acquire a taste for it. Partly this is because the genre tends to lean heavily on a combination of future-slang and computer jargon that is at best difficult to make sense of unless you have a far greater grounding in the technological sciences than I can claim.

As I’ve sat here thinking about it, I find that the problem I’ve had with the little cyberpunk I’ve experienced to date – “Shards of a Holographic Rose,” Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, and “Burning Chrome” – is that I seldom have a sense of a ‘big picture’ as anything more than a backdrop for a protagonist to do things that only mean anything to themselves. They have a bleak sense of a society that has become so advanced that it has paradoxically stagnated and nothing the protagonist achieves ever seems to matter in the big scheme.

An unfair perception, I’d imagine, but one that’s made it that much harder to develop any emotional investment in cyberpunk, and I end up staying in the more idealistic if less plausible franchises like Honor Harrington and Star Trek.

Stross does have the benefit of a very clear and accessible writing style, and unlike Gibson he doesn’t intentionally make the dialogue into a puzzle. He also has brief expository segments interspersed through the text to establish the larger context of what is happening around the characters (these usually also mark a timeskip) before zooming in and seeing their progress.

It also isn’t confined to the gungy, nigh-apocalyptic megacities I usually associate with the genre. It starts in vital old cultural centres on Earth like Amsterdam (I’m beginning to suspect that Amsterdam and Russian-accented malaprops named Boris are things Stross puts in all his books) and migrates into the outer Solar System and beyond.

More importantly, as posthuman intelligences proliferate, the characters race to keep their independence from the expanding ‘Matrioshka Brains’ swallowing the inner planets. They even venture out to the stars seeking clues as to what humanity might risk by this path.

Like many sci-fi classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Foundation, the book is meant in large part as an essay about the possible future of humanity. Stross is more adept than most at making sure that interesting characters are the ones relating these ideas to us, and making us care that they make it and succeed. At the same time, it isn’t a stodgy, conservative anti-technology tract, being much more moderate and merely against allowing our advancement to plateau out and stagnate.

That said, the characters are not exactly ‘normal’ humans by today’s standards. They begin by maintaining internet ‘exocortices’ that let them expand their brain’s processing power and mentally surf the internet. By the end, it becomes difficult to tell, even for them sometimes, whether they’re living in a virtual envrionment or a flesh-and-blood body, and even whether they are really the person they think they are, or merely a construct or a self-made copy of that person.

Like a lot of cyberpunk I’ve encountered, it doesn’t present a particularly comfortable vision of the future, but unlike the sense I get from, say, Blade Runner, I don’t feel with Accelerando as if it’s too late to do anything. Indeed, the ending note is one of the triumph of human feelings and free will.

Part of the power of the story is that, while I suspect even our rapidly advancing technology will take longer than the timeframe of this book to approach ‘Singularity,’ if one were to happen, it nevertheless feels disquietingly possible. Would we ultimately cast aside our very humanity in the quest for ever more bandwidth?

I still struggle with the jargon at times, but because some of the subject matter deals with posthuman entities, it’s probably fair to say that you’re not meant to understand some of what’s happening, because it’s essentially unknowable.

Stross, then, has created a story where voyages through space and interesting characters merge with a cyberpunk morality tale to create a story which has broadened my horizons while being so kind as to meet me partway. Unusual, memorable, challenging, a good reentry into science fiction literature!

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Posted by on April 2, 2015 in Book


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