Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “science fiction”

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s been a while since a book got under my skin quite like this one. Annihilation is a book that plays with familiar ideas and themes in a unique way, bounding together familiar science fiction tropes with a palpable sense of Lovecraftian cosmic dread. In Annihilation, knowledge is deadly but irresistible, with those who are curious bringing about their own downfall.

Many of the details of the backstory are kept intentionally vague, but we do know that around 30 years before the book begins a bizarre ‘Event’ led to the creation of Area X, a fairly small section of coastal land separated from the rest of the world by a strange border. The exact natures of this land and border are unclear, so the Southern Reach organisation has sent forth 11 expeditions, of which none returned entirely intact. Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition, as four women, known only by their job titles, set forth into Area X to attempt to unravel its mysteries. Our protagonist is the biologist and she is joined by the surveyor, the anthropologist and the psychologist. It is not long into their journey that they discover something not on their maps; a strange tunnel heading underground, which the biologist can only perceive as a ‘tower.’

Annihilation is told in the first person and is playful with the idea of an unreliable narrator. The biologist can’t quite trust her own senses and is quite upfront about the fact that she is distorting and twisting some of the information for the reader, and that some of what she sees is so indescribably alien it simply cannot be put into words. The atmosphere is pure Lovecraft; a recurring motif is our protagonist, a scientist, at the edge of something dangerous, knowing she should turn back, but utterly ruled by her curiosity and need to know, even if the consequences are hideous. Annihilation is not about eldritch and ancient beings viewing humanity with horrifying indifference, but it channels the same sense of unease.

It is the building of atmosphere which is Annihilation’s greatest triumph, particularly in scenes taking place within the tower. There is a sharpness and precision to VanderMeer’s prose; Annihilation is not a long book and could be called a longish novella rather than a full novel, but no moment is wasted. It is utterly lean and without an ounce of the flab which pervades the genre. I think Area X is meant to sound cliché; it sounds like the title of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi B-movie, but I think this intentionally bland name is to wrong-foot the reader about the kind of book they are reading and the reality of what Area X actually is. Alongside the solid world-building is very strong characterisation. The biologist is insular and driven and I loved spending time in her head.

Annihilation is the kind of book I’m going to be recommending to anyone who will listen, so I will scream into the void (this blog) to tell you to read it. I cannot wait to get to the sequels.

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The Boy on the Bridge by M R Carey

When M R Carey announced that he was writing a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts, I was a bit sceptical. My tolerance for prequels is generally low, as they inevitably face a pressing issue of having to justify their own existence. There have been some great prequels, but I think more that have felt pointless. The Boy on the Bridge doesn’t quite succeed in justifying its own existence and it never feels anywhere near as strong as The Girl with All the Gifts, but particularly towards the end it comes together with certain moments of power held back by an oddly arch and impersonal tone.

Readers of The Girl with all the Gifts will remember the Rosalind Franklin, a tank/lab sent out by the remaining seat of UK government of Beacon after the arrival of the cordyceps plague of hungries/zombies. Melanie and her group took refuge in the abandoned tank and it played a vital role in the closing sections of the book and

The Boy on the Bridge is the story of the Rosalind Franklin and the crew of scientists and military who populate it. The Boy on the Bridge jumps into the heads of most of the crew of the tank, sent from Beacon to try to find a cure. Dr Samrina Khan is a scientist who discovers that she is pregnant shortly into their journey. She has a strange bond with Steven Greaves, a sort of autistic-savant young man who is considered by some to be the best hope for formulating a cure. Whilst in the highlands of Sctoland, Greaves discovers a group of child hungries who act like no other hungries they’ve seen before. This discovery kicks off the events which eventually culminate with an abandoned Rosalind Franklin, somewhere in London.

Although there’s a lot that is interesting in The Boy on the Bridge, for much of my time reading I found myself wondering why this story needed to be told. Revelations, such as the cognisant child hungries, will be of no surprise to those who have read The Girl with all the Gifts and it’s difficult to say what more this adds to our understanding of the setting. Carey uses the enclosed and claustrophobic space of the Rosalind Franklin well and I enjoyed the details of the strange life they’re all having to live together. It suffers somewhat from the horror movie problems of much of the plot being based entirely around people doing very stupid, illogical things. Obviously I would rather read characters driven by emotion than logic as I’m not a robot, but too often I just found myself exasperated, when I think I was meant to be horrified.

The lack of a clear main character hurts the book; there’s no one that can rival Melanie in terms of sympathy and engagement. There are some intense moments which should hit harder than they really do, because perhaps with the exception of Greaves I never really felt like I got a grip on any of these people. Greaves is a good character and I think the novel would have worked better if structured more clearly around him, as The Girl with all the Gifts was with Melanie.

The Boy on the Bridge is perfectly readable and I wasn’t bored, but I can’t imagine it making anywhere near the splash of The Girl with all the Gifts. That said, an intriguing epilogue sets the stage for a potentially great follow up. I’d be all for this, moving the series forward rather than returning to the past.

 

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Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover

The Acts of Caine series seems to follow a cycle of something contained and disciplined followed by something more grand and ambitious. The first cycle of this technique, Heroes Die followed by Blade of Tyshalle, didn’t really work for me. This second cycle, with the focused Caine Black Knife followed by the unhinged and bizarre Caine’s Law, works much better. The sense of having bit off a bit more than he can chew persists from Blade of Tyshalle, but by keeping the focus firmly on the titular protagonist it avoids its worst missteps. Caine’s Law is ambitious, dazzling and genuinely unique and a memorable ending to one of the strangest fantasy series around.

Caine Black Knife ended on a series of cliffhangers; Orbek’s upcoming trial-by-combat with Angvasse Khaylock, the nature of the Smoke Hunt and, most significantly, Caine’s final arrest and removal, crippled once again, to Earth. To give any significant plot summary for this book without spoiling it feels like an impossible challenge. Caine’s Law takes place in a variety of times and places, some before the events of Heroes Die, as well as between Blade of Tyshalle and Caine Black Knife. The core theme of the novel is deity and religion; considering that at least three figures throughout the series can be said to have ascended to becoming demi-Gods, it’s a theme worth exploring and closes out the series in suitably epic fashion.

Whilst I appreciate the ambition, as with Blade of Tyshalle things fall apart a bit in the execution. I really love what Stover is going for here, but it’s a bit too opaque, a bit too dense. It’s well aware of its own confusing nature, but being aware of your own flaws don’t necessarily stop them from being flaws. The book feels like a dense weave of subplots, rather than having a core strong plot in itself. Some of these subplots work better than others, with a little bit of overindulgence in some areas. A very interesting new character known as the Horse-Witch plays a vital role, but I think perhaps a bit too much time is spent with this storyline, as well as a lot of mediation about horses in general. Still, I ultimately had a better time with Caine’s Law than Blade of Tyshalle because it continues the wise trend from Caine Black Knife in focusing entirely on its titular protagonist.

There have been a lot of unstoppable, ridiculous fantasy badasses, but Caine may be the best I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this book breaks down exactly who, and what, Caine is, to the very core. Supposedly Stover is writing another book in the setting focusing on Raithe, and despite what I’ve said earlier, I think keeping Caine out of future books, or as a supporting character, is for the best. We know him now, intimately, inside and out. A lot of the time badass characters achieve that through mystery, but we now know pretty much all we could ever want to know about this character, which makes his unique perspective and strength somehow even more compelling. Caine is to fantasy what Batman is to comics, or John Wick to cinema.

Caine’s Law is an ambitious and bizarre way to end the series. Stover doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s a lot to be said for shooting for the stars, even if you ever so slightly miss. I look forward to delving into some of his other works, although I think I might skip the novelisation of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

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Touch by Claire North

Touch is the third Claire North book I’ve read and, whilst it is very good, it bears more than a little resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the book which followed Touch but I read first. This similarity undermined it slightly for me, but nonetheless this is another exciting sci-fi tinged thriller from someone who seems to be a master of them.

Claire North’s books are about people with strange abilities, which are both a blessing and a curse, hidden within our world. Where The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August covered reincarnation, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope the idea of being forgotten, Touch is about a being (known as a ghost) that possesses different bodies but has no form left of its own, transferring through touch. The protagonist is known as Kepler and is around 300 years old, hopping from host to host, usually with the host’s consent in exchange for a large pay-out at the end of the possession. When Kepler, in her host Josephine, is gunned down in a Turkish train station, Kepler manages to escape before her host dies and goes on the run in the body of her would be assassin, pursued by the mysterious organisation to which he belongs.

Touch, similarly to her other books, is a globetrotting conspiracy story, as the protagonist moves through a vast range of locations, exploring what it means to be human. It does this very well, but by this point the three books have begun to blur into one. She’s chosen a particular thing that she is going to do and she does it really well, but an element of fatigue begun to slip in. I probably should have left a bigger gap between The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this. Where Harry August posits that humanity is tied to mortality, and Hope Arden suggests it is tied to connections we make to each other, Touch is about the physical body itself. The horror inherent in the concept is not shied away from; although Kepler herself is sympathetic, North never suggests that the experience of having your body stolen against your will is anything but terrible. One plot thread involving a body taken for decades is particularly harrowing. The flashback stuff is generally very good, with some great scenes set in the Ottoman Empire and 1950s Hollywood. The present day storyline stumbles slightly, with lots of scenes of Kepler travelling places and investigating things and generally moving the plot forward, but in a rambling and vague fashion. Touch, and to an extent all of North’s books I’ve read, seems to be at their best when simply wallowing in its own concept, with the core narrative holding it all together being somewhat less compelling.

You may have noticed that I’ve gendered Kepler as female when I refer to the character; her biological sex naturally varies depending on her host, but the voice that came through all of these I couldn’t help read as female. I could go through everything I’ve written and alter the pronouns to ‘it’ and I almost did exactly that, but I actually think it’s interesting how Touch ended up making me project gender onto a genderless entity. I wonder what in my own personal biases made me read Kepler as female, because I’ve read that many people have read the character as male. In Kepler, North provides an interesting cipher to examine our own thought processes and assumptions. An area I wish North had touched more upon was the racial element; Kepler refers to having marched as an African-American with Dr. King in the 1960s, but at the end she could jump into the skin of a white person and avoid any of the consequences of being black in America. North prods at the idea of appropriation, but never really jumps into it. Since the big conceptual stuff worked more for me than the core thriller narrative, I’d have liked to see Touch go further down this path.

All said however, Touch is a very good book. If you’ve read any of her other books recently, maybe give it a little break to keep things feeling a bit fresher, but it was nonetheless thought-provoking and intriguing. I don’t know what angle of humanity North is going to pursue next, but I do know it will be interesting.

 

Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.

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Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

A new Brandon Sanderson novella is never a bad thing and Snapshot is a lot of fun, if a bit lightweight compared to some of his other efforts. Its high concept is a bit over reliant on exposition, compared to the relative elegance with which he creates entire worlds in stories like Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell or Sixth of Dusk, but it’s a fun bit of popcorn reading nonetheless.

Snapshot follows two detectives, Davis and Chaz, as they investigate inside a titular ‘Snapshot’, an entire recreation of a day in a city, used to investigate crimes in real time. This is set in the Reckoners universe, or multiverse, or whatever’s going on with that setting. During a routine investigation, Davis and Chaz stumble upon a crime they weren’t meant to know about and take it upon themselves to investigate.

The actual story itself, in terms of character and motivation, is fairly thin. What saves the experience is a playfulness with reality and perception, as well as Sanderson’s signature world building. The people within the Snapshot are, disturbingly, implied to be sentient and that every time the Snapshot is shut down they are essentially murdering thousands of conscious minds. Sanderson doesn’t shy away from this inherent darkness, with the most interesting element of the plot being a badge which, when shown to someone in the Snapshot, makes them aware that they are, essentially, not real. The differing reactions are very interesting; some laugh, some cry, some kill themselves and some kill others. Still, the actual story wrapping up the interesting ideas isn’t particularly memorable. It’s got a couple of twists, but without much of a reason to care about the characters they’re robbed of impact.

Snapshot is a decent enough read, but definitely doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other short fiction. If you fancy a sci-fi tinged detective story you could do worse, but there’s better out there too.

 

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The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

I really liked Claire North’s last book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope does very much feel like a companion piece to her last book. As with Harry August, this book is about a person with a strange power (or curse) and the unique perspective this gives them on our world.

When Hope Arden turned sixteen, people began to forget her. About two minutes after the end of any conversation or contact, the person she is communicating with will forget the encounter ever happened, even her own parents. This leaves Hope unable to form relationships, get a job, buy a home or live any semblance of a normal life, so she has naturally become a thief of the rich and famous, more for the thrills than the material gain. Her next target is a leading member of Prometheus, a company known for creating the app Perfection, which has the aim of encouraging people to be their ‘perfect’ self. Of course, Perfection is based around an ideal of someone white, rich and American and the addictive quest for perfection is ruining lives. Hope discovers that Perfection is even more sinister than it first seems and sets about using her unique ability to take them down.

The core forgetting concept is so interesting that when the Perfection angle was introduced I felt a little put out; why have such a great concept being wasted on a standard social media = bad story? Perfection is fairly Black Mirror as a concept and not miles from sci-fi dystopias we’ve seen before. I think what makes it more interesting is the international angle seen in The Sudden Appearance of Hope. This book takes place all over the world and seeing people trapped into striving for a vapid Western ideal is interesting. The forgetting element in Hope ties in very nicely with Perfection. For a user of Perfection, their life is like a performance where being known to have experienced something is more important than the experience itself; for Hope this is impossible. The book regularly refers to her life being trapped in the present tense, with the implication that everyone else is trapped in the future. Hope is genuinely free in a way few people are, but it’s a freedom that comes at a terrible cost. Therefore, the two elements which make up this story reveal themselves to be utterly entwined and compelling.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is, much like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, told in a relatively non-linear fashion. It can feel a bit vague and directionless at times. I appreciate that the sense of displacement is intentional, being fairly central to the main character, but it’s a bit too easy to lose the thread of the actual story running throughout. Where Harry August was more impersonal in tone, The Sudden Appearance of Hope is much more internally focused, with more than a few lapses into stream of consciousness. North is a bit more risk taking in her prose here, which feels less controlled and more chaotic. It’s never less than compelling though, allowing us to empathise with a figure who is, in many ways, very alien.

Hope is an interesting character, but doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged person. This is undeniably intentional and perhaps a reflection that we can only truly be defined against other people. If you cannot form relationships, you are incomplete. Hope seems, at least to some extent, aware of her lack of identity and desperately seeks one. She’s a fascinating character and, similarly to Harry August before her, a bit of an enigma. The supporting cast are interesting in this one, such as Luca Everard, an investigator for Interpol who has pieced together Hope’s existence from her crimes and the gaps in memory she leaves. I really liked Byron, a mysterious online figure with a grudge against Perfection. In her own way, Hope does make some connections to people, but the hurdle of forgetting creates some fascinating dynamics. The characterisation in this book is a lot better than its predecessor.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is another great book from Claire North. She reminds me a bit of David Mitchell, one of my favourite authors, although she dips more thoroughly into science fiction than he does. I’m looking forward to going back and reading Touch, which was published before Harry August. This is another piece of genre fiction which I would recommend to anyone, regardless of tastes.

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Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

This is a weird, weird book. It is the sequel to the outstanding Heroes Die, the first in Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series. It abandons a lot of what worked well in the first book and doubles down on things that didn’t, but it’s sheer ambition is giddying. Stover goes all out here and it results in a book which is a structural mess and becomes borderline incoherent, but is an undeniably fascinating read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel like this.

Blade of Tyshalle takes place seven years after Heroes Die: Hari Michaelson, famed as the Actor for Caine, has been left crippled after the conclusion of the previous book and is now living his ‘happy ending’ as the Administrator for the Studio for which he used to work. Things are far from perfect, with a tense marriage to his wife Shanna and a dangerous nostalgia for his violent past as Caine. His purest joy is his adopted daughter Faith, child of Shanna and Lamorak. His closest companion is former nemesis Ma’elkoth, the former Emperor of Ankhana who was dragged along with Hari when he last left Overworld and unable to return, now known as Tan’elkoth. Hari’s quiet life is interrupted when he discovers an outbreak of HRPV in Overworld, a mutated and more deadly form of rabies which had swept the Earth decades prior. With no immunity or vaccination, the people of Overworld are defenceless from a hideous death and so Hari sets about to get to the bottom of the outbreak, dragging him back into the habits of the past and re-awakening the dormant Caine within him.

Heroes Die was a relatively focused novel, taking place over six days and primarily within one city. Blade of Tyshalle has no such structure, or seemingly any structure at all. The frustrating thing is just how frequently brilliant this book is; there are isolated chapters which are as good as anything else you’ll read in the genre, but there are a lot which descend into endless mythological and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. I loved the opening, which shows us Hari’s early days training to be an Actor through the eyes of Kris Hansen, who wants nothing more than to live in Overworld as an elf-like Primal. The biggest issue is the emergence of the true villain, a figure whose presence doesn’t gel at all with the previous book and is too abstract to truly fear. The core of humanity which made the previous book so good is still there, but there’s an unbelievable amount of time spent on conflicts which involve one demi-God communicating with another demi-God in an incomprehensible manner. When Blade of Tyshalle brings itself back down to Earth the book soars, but much of the climax is robbed of impact. It seeks to be too epic, with a villain who is essentially a manifestation of the worst vices of human nature, but this is a story which works best when it is about scrapping in the streets.

From a prose standpoint though, Blade of Tyshalle is seriously great. The action scenes are still pretty much the best I’ve read. I may not have thought it possible to crank up the violence any further from Heroes Die but, well, here it is. This time though…I think he went a too far. The violence in Heroes Die felt like a winking allusion towards a shift in fantasy tastes at the time but Blade of Tyshalle doesn’t function as a commentary on the fantasy genre as well as Heroes Die. The violence, and some of it really is stomach churning, feels like shock for shocks sake. Rape, both physical but also mental, shows up time and again in the story. The victims are denied any real voice, both before or after and once again it feels like it was deployed for shock value. The world building and dialogue are top notch, but it feels like Stover descends into self-indulgence here and without the defence of being a satire that could be claimed by Heroes Die.

Caine/Hari continues to be so much more interesting than he sounds, with new character such as Hari’s academy friend Kris and the vengeance driven monastic warrior Raithe being well and fully drawn. As I said before, the main villain is the weakest link and never manages to match up to the brilliant trio of antagonists from Heroes Die: Ma’elkoth, Count Berne and Arturo Kollberg. One of the most interesting themes of this novel is that of friendship. Caine has a lot of odd friendships, forged in strange ways, which arise throughout the novel. One of the chief joys of Blade of Tyshalle is the bizarre love/hate relationship between Caine and Tan’elkoth, former nemeses who, by circumstance, have become best friends, but it’s far from the only relationship like this. Betrayal is the mirror theme of friendship and is also core to the narrative and it’s these complex, shifting relationships which kept me most engaged in the book.

Blade of Tyshalle is hugely ambitious book which falls short of the mark. It’s too long and self-indulgent and could have done with a pretty brutal editing. There’s so much potential in this book, so many interesting ideas and characters toyed with, which are abandoned in favour of a fuzzy and vague message about humans being better as individuals and more flawed as a collective…or something? I don’t really know what this book is trying to say. Heroes Die was a relatively straight forward satire of the fantasy market and the human lust for violence and it worked so much better than whatever this is. Blade of Tyshalle is a very interesting book and one which I think I’m going to think about for a while, but it’s too unfocused to be the genuine classic Heroes Die is.

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Babylon’s Ashes by James S A Corey

I spent about a year working through The Expanse books and to be honest I don’t really mind the break before the next one. Babylon’s Ashes is very much Nemesis Games 2. All the other Expanse books have been fairly self-contained in setting and story, whilst building towards the larger whole. For example, Abaddon’s Gate concerned itself with Medina Station and the Slow Zone and Cibola Burn with the colony of Ilus, but, for better or for worse, Babylon’s Ashes follows on pretty much directly from Nemesis Games.

Earth is still reeling from the devastating attack from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy, who now seek to consolidate their hold on the Belt and Medina Station, to ensure that the colony gates cannot be used. There are a lot of PoV characters in this one, but the core story lines converge around about three. One is Filip Inaros, son of Marco and Naomi Nagata and orchestrator of the attack on Earth, who now finds himself questioning the competence of his father and his place in the Free Navy, whilst burdened with the unimaginable loss of life he has caused. Next is Michio Pa, returning form Abaddon’s Gate, now a Free Navy captain who goes rogue after Marco’s decisions become more and more erratic. Finally, obviously, we have Holden, desperately trying to hold the system together and re-unite the Inners and the Belters.

Where previous books were strict about numbers of PoV characters, Babylon’s Ashes relaxes this significantly. There are still a few who dominate, but there are also a handful of chapters from characters like Bobbie Draper, Clarissa Mao, Avasarala and Prax Meng, as well as all of the Rocinante crew. There’s a looseness to the structure which feels intentional but not quite successful. For example, the events on Medina Station are shown through four different one-off PoVs, which only has the effect of not allowing us to get particularly attached to any of them. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to return to so many fan favourite characters, but a lot of the time (with the notable exception of Prax who gets a decent subplot of his own) it feels superfluous. This is a book where it felt like a lot was happening, but when it came to actually running through the complete events of the book I realised it was a bit lacking. It also, as with Nemesis Games, pretty much entirely ignores to protomolecule/ancient alien civilisation plot. I have full confidence that following books will return to it, but that’s two books now which lack the most interesting part of the series.

The role of these two books, Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes are clear, to overturn the status quo and install a new one as the series enters its final stretch. I see the narrative necessity, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting to read. They remind me a fair bit of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, books which have also been criticised for pacing and existing largely for place setting. The thing is though, I’m a defender of those books as Martin’s characterisation is so good that following a wonderful character like Brienne of Tarth wandering around for 8 chapters doesn’t bore me. Abraham and Franck aren’t quite in the same league, but who is?

The characterisation is still solid enough, although some character moves are unconvincing. I like Clarissa Mao but her redemption arc feels a bit rushed. Marco didn’t really work for me as a villain; I see what they were going for, he’s like Che Guevara crossed with Osama Bin Laden, but he ends up feeling more like Donald Trump, a blow-hard appealing to populist idiots and fuelling anger to power his own rise. He’s going to Make the Belt Great Again, but the details for exactly how that will work are sketchy at best. Holden is pretty much static as a character by this point, but that’s fine, I quite like him existing as a paragon of ridiculous goodness. I miss proto-Miller though; a bitchy ghost commenting on everything he does certainly livened up his chapters.

Babylon’s Ashes isn’t awful by any stretch, but I’m certainly glad that this subplot is over now. My hope is that the final trilogy of books double down on the protomolecule stuff after its two book absence. As underwhelmed as I was, this wasn’t enough to put me off the series. If I can power through the middle Wheel of Time books I can power through anything. Hopefully, as with Wheel of Time, the conclusion is worth it.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is only five years old but already feels like something of a relic. It’s an optimistic and uplifting book with an unshakable belief in the power of nerds to do good. Events since 2011 have shaken my belief that being a nerd or a geek makes you more likely to be a good person, with events like Gamergate or the Sad Puppies unfortunately suggesting that ‘nerd culture’ isn’t what I thought it was. In this sense, Ready Player One feels like a sort of nerd utopia, where everyone is egalitarian and inclusive in their shared love of pop culture, as opposed to the polarised and exclusionary narratives which so often surround issues of diversity in ‘nerdy’ pop culture.

Ready Player One takes place in a not too distant future which has become dominated by the ‘Oasis’, a virtual reality experience where much of the Earth’s population spend all their time. Where the real world is riven with poverty, over-population, environmental collapse and massive inequality, the Oasis is a genuinely egalitarian place where anyone can live an exciting or creative life. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, had died five years before the start of the book, but in his will had set forth the hunt for the Egg. Somewhere in the Oasis, hidden behind three walls requiring three keys, in the greatest Easter Egg known to man and the discoverer of this Egg will bestow the finder with Halliday’s fortune and control of his company. This announcement changes the world, with many foregoing all else and hunting for the Egg full time, known as gunters. Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture and so all the gunters become experts in 80s movies, TV shows, videogames and music in the hope that they will provide a clue. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of these gunters, although a fairly insignificant one, who stumbles upon the first clue for the Egg five years after the competition was first announced.

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One is largely going to be tied to your tolerance for reference based writing. Almost every major moment is a call back to some piece of 80s arcana or the other. Now, I’m not a child of the 80s. I’m a 90s kid baby. Re-write this with Pokémon, Tarantino and Nirvana and it’d be more my era, but I ended up spending a fair bit of this book feeling quite lost.  I have mixed feelings about all the references. I usually don’t like them; I found them really annoying in Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds in the Sky, but Ready Player One is a bit different because it’s entire plot is about references. It’s about nostalgia, so it doesn’t feel as calculated and cringeworthy here as it does elsewhere. I was expecting this to end up as a comment on the toxicity of nostalgia, of living in the past and refusing to embrace the new, but that never comes.

The main cast are a likeable, if straightforward bunch. There aren’t any standout characters, but they’re all enjoyable enough that you’re rooting for the good buys and booing the bad guys. The ‘adorable nerd’ thing doesn’t feel quite as relevant these days in a post Gamergate world. No one in the Oasis is whining about SJWs or posting Pepe memes, officially making it a vastly superior place than the real internet we have to inhabit. This isn’t a criticism of Ready Player One, far from it, but it definitely made me quite sad to see that genuine optimism and enthusiasm for ‘nerd culture’, which recent events have revealed to be, at best, non-existent, or at worst toxic and hateful.

Ready Player One is a likeable enough book, certainly the genre fiction version of a beach read. I read the vast majority of it across two lengthy train journeys, which seems like the right way to absorb something like this. I’m not sure that there’s much substance here, but it’s a fun enough ride regardless.

 

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