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Sun of Suns

November 26, 2007

sun of sunsSun of Suns: Book 1 of Virga

Karl Schroeder

pub. Tor Science Fiction, 336 pp

One of the things I like about a certain type of speculative fiction, is world building. Certain authors have an uncanny ability to create from their imaginations new worlds that are so well thought out, plausible, and complete that I am left feeling as if the world if not does than certainly could exist. Frank Herbert did this perhaps better than anyone with Dune and its sequels. Of course Tolkein created a world so believable that it has formed the basis for countless other author’s work.

In Sun of Suns, Karl Schroeder has done a magnificent job of world creation, and what’s more, he does so in a world completely different from any I have ever read before. Imagine you are inside a planet sized balloon. There is air, but no gravity, and no planets or natural stars. There is water and matter in this world, but it is all just floating around. However, since the world is relatively old, there are conglomerations of these things throughout various regions of space.

People have populated this world and have used technology to overcome its shortcomings. Artificial fusion suns provide light and heat to limited areas – those beyond the reach of any sun are called ‘winter.’ Cities are built on the inside of great cylinders, and the wealthier have propulsion systems to spin the cities and create gravity. Travel between cities is done in steampunk space-sailing ships and the stronger cities have navies to protect themselves.

While the world itself is fascinating, Schroeder also pulls off a rip roaring Dumas-esque swashbuckling pirate adventure story as well. The main character, Hayden, is set on revenge for the death of his parents. However, through his skill as a pilot, he finds himself gang pressed into the service of the very admiral upon whom he has sworn revenge. Of course, their mission which includes a secret attach and the search for a great and powerful pirate treasure could ultimately save the entire region so his motives and alliances will be tested throughout. Throw in a sexy alien from outside their world on a mission of her own and off we go.

This was a very entertaining read, and I’m looking forward to the sequel, Queen of Candesce.

3halfstar 3.5

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Making Money

November 26, 2007

making money Making Money

Terry Pratchett

pub. Harper, 400pp

Okay, so I love these books. Terry Pratchett has an incredible sense of humor, a great eye for social commentary, and the man can just plain spin a yarn. For those of you who don’t know the Disc World books, it is high time you tried them.

The books take place on a fantastic world called The Disc, because it is, get this, flat and shaped like a disc. The Disk has several cities and countries, but the books primarily focus on the city of Ankh Morpork, a fallen metropolis like no other. The world is amazingly well thought out and complete, populated by all kinds of creatures from dwarves and trolls to vampires and werewolves. Of course people, wizards, witches, and monks who have the task of overseeing and safeguarding the passage of time also come into play. Lest you think this is just silly fantasy, Prattchet uses these different species to point out and brilliantly make fun of our own society’s foibles and prejudices.

There are 33 books in the series, and several distinct plot threads, each comprising multiple books. Making Money is the second book to deal with Moist von Lipwig. In Going Postal, Moist is ‘saved’ from his life as a con-man by the Patrician, Ankh Morpork’s ruling tyrant, and put in charge of the decrepit and failing Post Office. In this book, Moist has grown bored with the now smoothly functioning Post Office, and is yearning for the action and spark of his earlier, less law-abiding days.

Through a series of machinations and one fortuitous death, Moist becomes the de-facto chairman of the National Bank and therefore the Mint. It will be his job to modernize the entire economy of Ankh Morpork, to begin printing paper money, and to get the city off of the gold standard and onto something that will allow for development and progress.

While this is not the book to start your journey into the Disc World – for this I suggest Small Gods or Thief of Time – it is, as usual, a fun escape and great social satire at the same time.

4star 4

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Extras

October 25, 2007

extrasExtras

Scott Westerfeld

pub. Simon Pulse: 432pp

This is the fourth book in the Uglies/Pretties/Specials trilogy. Yes, I did say the fourth book in the trilogy. Apparently, Scott Westerfeld just couldn’t stay away from the world he had created in the original books. To me, this is a very good thing.

In this future world, people of our time (Rusties) have destroyed civilization as we know it, and in its place a new society has risen. The first three books tell the story of Tally Youngblood’s journey through the various body and brain modifications given to kids as they reach and pass puberty. Unfortunately what seems like a benefit to all comes with a very high cost; one which Tally figures out and works to eliminate. Ultimately she rebels against this society and helps to bring about major changes.

Extras picks up the story in the post-pretties era, one in which people have been set free to re-craft their culture in any way they see fit. It takes us to a new city where everyone has a feed on an advanced internet. Computers monitor all these feeds in addition to everyone’s conversations, which feeds are being watched, etc. in order to give everyone a “face rank.” The higher your face rank, the more important you are. In fact, the entire economy is based on popularity. Those with the highest rank are given the biggest apartments, the nicest clothes, etc. But for those at the bottom of the barrel, they must be good citizens in order to earn “merits” which they can trade for the goods and services they need.

The main character, Aya Fuse,has an extremely low rank – in the 480,000’s – and will do anything to catch the big story that will propel her into the upper ranks of fame. In pursuit of this goal, she falls into a major adventure that takes her beyond her wildest dreams and brings her into contact with the world’s most famous person, the one and only Tally Youngblood.

I really liked the first three books of this series, especially the way there was a major phase shift between each book that physically transformed Tally and also forced her to adapt mentally and emotionally. However, I do think the series lost some of its momentum as it moved towards its conclusion in the third book. This new volume, thankfully, restores the series to its original level. It is a compelling world with enough new ideas, concepts, and cool gadgets to keep you thinking, and at the same time the plot hums along like Westerfeld at his best.

It was also fun to read this book having just read the articles about popularity and gossip I mentioned in my Deep Impact of Language post. Here was an entire culture based on nothing but the concept of what is essentially gossip or public perception of who we are. By creating this world, Westerfeld allows us to look at what some of the possible outcomes of current trends might be (collecting friends on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking sites, personal blogging, etc.) and to think about whether those are ultimately good or bad for society as a whole. As always, I really love the way fiction allows for an ethical sandbox or laboratory, and this series in particular does this very well.

rating: 4star 4

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World Series Bound!

October 22, 2007

soxwinpennantIt was a late night last night as I stayed up to listen to the Sox win the AL pennant. Although the final score was a blowout, the game was close until the 8th inning, and I was quite scared that they would somehow find a way to blow it. And really when you get right down to it, the real reason I hope they win is because my son is such a big fan. What I’m dreading is working through his first major let down if they lose. Of course I wonder if it would be better to get it out of the way now, or to let him know glory and be set up for future, perhaps greater, let downs in the future. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. For now, onward and upward. Go Sox!

Manny celebrates

(photos from mlb.com)

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The Book of Air and Shadows

October 19, 2007

bookofairandshadowsThe Book of Air and Shadows

Michael Gruber

pub. William Morrow, 480pp

This literary thriller tells the story of several characters and their involvement with a discovered manuscript purportedly revealing the existence and location of a hitherto unknown Shakespeare play. The principal narrator is a wealthy IP lawyer, Jake Mishkin, who also happens to be a heavyweight lifter and something of a philanderer. While his attitude toward women was initially off-putting, the character harkens back to the noire detectives of yesteryear, albeit with a modern awareness of his flaws, and he truly grew on me.

 

The story grows convoluted in a good way with multi-layered lies, cons, double crosses, Russian and Israeli gangsters, kidnapping, bookbinding, 17th century espionage, love both fulfilled and unrequited, classic movies, and of course a good chase at the end all thrown in.

 

I think what sold me though, was the book’s mix of genres. It is at times a thriller, at times historical, but always literary and even literate. Yes, this publishing trend to capitalize on the success of The DaVinci Code -which, I might add, cannot hold a candle to the best of them all, Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has produced many not-so-good books. However, Gruber, the author, uses a the device of switching narrators -there are two modern narrators as well as the original 17th century manuscript – and thereby genres, to keeps thing interesting and provide several different points of view of the same set of events. While there are a few places where this causes the narrative to loop back on itself a bit chronologically – something I found inconsistent and a bit distracting – for the most part it is handled quite well and the book has a good pace.

 

While, ultimately, I enjoyed the book a great deal, I was disappointed by the ending as I found it a bit quick and almost anti-climactic. However, if you look at it as being about the ride and not the destination, this was definitely a nice piece of entertainment. Nothing earth-shattering, but a good way to pass some time.

 

Overall rating: 3halfstar 3.5

 

 

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Jumper (cont.)

October 18, 2007

Jumper I finished Steven Gould’s Jumper the other night and must say that I really liked it. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is the way the story evolves. Just when you think you have the story arc figured out, something else happens to the main character and the story moves in a new direction. This kept me interested in what was going on and allowed for some nice character development.

That and some very inventive (and fun) methods of dealing with the bad guys just cemented my opinion.

I also found and ordered a used copy of the book, so I will add it to the library soon.

overall rating:4star 4

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The Deep Impact of Language

October 17, 2007

I came across two very interesting articles today having to do with how the development of language has impacted human beings.

The first comes from the New York Times. Written by John Tierney, it talks about how language may have developed to help fulfill the “social grooming” aspects of communities. You may know that an integral part of social animal cultures, especially primates, is social grooming. This is where different individuals spend time taking care of other individuals in the group, whether it be un-matting hair, picking bugs, etc. By doing this, they develop social bonds and a social hierarchy – the better groomer you are, the more friends you have. Tierney’s article points out a theory that as groups get larger, ie human communities, the time for grooming drops and something else had to develop to take it’s place. Enter language. We could now say, “Gee, your hair looks very un-matted today,” rather than actually go through with the grooming. Take this up another level and you start to get gossip. Eventually, we could build our reputation by talking kindly about others, or hurt someone else’s reputation by talking badly about them. Of course there are consequences for talking badly about someone else, for eventually people will find out that we have been mean and think badly about us, etc. etc. He goes on to talk about how strongly ingrained in our makeup gossip has become, even trumping facts sometimes. (Does this sound like Facebook, Myspace, etc. to anyone else?)

The second article was written by Chris Chatham, a grad student at CU Boulder, on his blog Developing Intelligence. In this article, summarizing cognitive neuroscience researcher Michael C Corballis’s theories, he talks about how hand gestures and handedness are connected to language. In the early stages of language, gesticulation was needed to increase comprehension. However, as language became more sophisticated, we relied more and more on our brains for direct interpretation. Now, I know this is oversimplifying but, as language became faster and more complicated the left side of the brain, part of which processes rapid information aquisition, came into use even more in order to deal with this hightened use of language. Oh, you’re saying, but the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. And yes, you’re on to something. According to Chatham, the increased use of language is a possible cause of the predominance of human beings to be right handed; something not seen in any other species, even chimpanzees and gorillas.

So, what does all this mean? I don’t know, but looking at language as the motivator for both social behavior and physical conditions is just fascinating to me. And what does this say about left handed people and their ability to function in a highly developed, language centered, gossipy environment? And how about the long existing social bias against left handedness? (My mother was one of those lucky few who were actually whacked on the hand with a ruler in school if she wrote with her left hand.)

I guess it’s just one more example of how important language is to who and what we are.

Here are links to the original articles if you’re interested in reading more.

New York Times Article

Tierney’s Article