Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ventus - Karl Schroeder

I was lucky enough to meet Karl Schroeder at SFContario in Toronto not too long ago, and I was really impressed by what he had to say, and by his opinions on the usefulness of SF - allowing us glimpses of possible futures and the vocabulary to discuss them - that I decided to go find some of his books. Ventus was the easiest to get my hands on, as it is available for free online. I don't usually enjoy reading things on the computer screen, but Ventus was good enough that I just kept right on reading.

Initially it appears to be a fantasy novel, set on the planet Ventus which superficially resembles medieval earth, with a young protagonist Jordan Mason saving one of his workers from what appears to be some supernatural being, and having visions which appear to be from some sort of gods referred to as "The Winds". Fairly soon it transpires that all of these apparently fantastical elements are the result of advanced technology, but technology which is not under the control of the humans inhabiting Ventus, but some bizarre artificial intelligence with its own agenda. Or agendas as the case may be.

This is simultaneously a glorious romp through a fantasy world, a fascinating look at what the world might be like if every element of nature had its own voice and agenda, and a wonderful technological battle with advanced artificial intelligences with the future of the galaxy at stake. It isn't short, but it sure is fun to read.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Count Zero - William Gibson

The sequel to Neuromancer, but quite a ways down the road. There are a few secondary characters from Neuromancer who show up in this story, but it does stand alone very nicely. I think. It has been a while since I read Neuromancer, and I may have missed making a few connections here and there.

There are 3 main characters, 2 of whom do finally meet near the very end of the book, and the 3rd who is there to give the reader a much different perspective on what is actually happening in the world.

Turner is a mercenary who specializes in extracting top level scientists from the companies who essentially own them and arranging for them to defect to a new company. The companies would often prefer to kill the scientist in question rather than lose them to a competitor, so this can get pretty messy. Turner has essentially just been rebuilt from the ground up following an explosion after his last job went badly. Now he's back on the job, extracting yet another research scientist.

Marly is a disgraced art gallery owner who has just been hired by the richest man on the planet in order to track down the source of some very unusual pieces of artwork. In the process she gets to discover just exactly how different the ultra-rich are from regular folks - her employer lives entirely in cyber-space while what remains of his body lies in a giant tank somewhere in a bunker in Stockholm.

Finally there's Bobby Newmark, aka Count Zero, who really wants to be a "console jockey". This is where it becomes really obvious that this book was written in 1986, and you can see how Gibson's idea of Cyberspace, while really cool, is very very different from the internet as we're familiar with it. A console jockey appears to use a keyboard for input, and manual dexterity is definitely important. They're linked in to Cyberspace via electrodes attached to the forehead, and the experience appears to be very much like riding a motorbike through a shifting 3D landscape. The problem with Bobby is that he is very inexperienced, and doesn't actually seem all that good at what he wants to do. He's just a script kiddie. But he has accidentally wandered into the middle of something much bigger than he is, and while he is just a teenage boy, he really does his best.

Having finished this, what I really want to do is to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, then sit down and read all 3 of these books back to back. There is some really cool stuff going on conceptually, but I find with Gibson that I really have to pay attention to the pictures he is drawing in my head, otherwise things stop making sense very quickly. This isn't the sort of story you can just skim over, he expects a reasonable amount of effort from his readers...which is awesome...except that it really does take some work.

Ariel - Steven R. Boyett

I bought this book after John Scalzi recommended it over on the Whatever, and then just couldn't get past the first chapter for ages. I was finally in the right mood for it though and really quite enjoyed it (although it isn't perfect) - enough that I'm planning to get my hands on the sequel, Elegy Beach.

The story opens with a boy & his unicorn (or a unicorn & her boy) walking down an abandoned highway together. They would probably be content to simply explore this post-apocalyptic world together, living mostly off the land and only coming near cities to take what they need from stores that haven't already been looted by everyone else. Unfortunately there are other people in the world, and one of them is a necromancer who wants Ariel's horn. Also, boys to grow up, and unicorns aren't necessarily compatible with growing up. It is a great coming of age story with good characters and marvelous fight scenes, and I especially enjoyed the author's commentary at the end.

So, mostly I really enjoyed the story, but I had some major problems with the world. The idea of "The Change" where technology suddenly stops working, pollution vanishes, and magical creatures suddenly appear, is fabulous, but the execution isn't perfect. How can watches and compound bows keep working if bicycles don't? What Boyett really wanted to do was to remove guns and modern transportation from the world - which is great - but there are probably better ways to do it. Sky's suggestion was to make combustion suddenly stop working, so engines and guns don't work but other things still do. I'm sure someone else could poke holes through that too. Mostly this didn't bother me though. My big problem was the social changes following the Change. Where did all the people go? Pete & Ariel are wandering through a very sparsely populated landscape, and yet folks didn't all starve to death because there are still canned goods on grocery store shelves. I think they're mostly assumed to have died as a result of violence, but the speed at which society just falls apart just doesn't feel right to me. It doesn't mesh with the fact that so many stores in large cities haven't been completely looted and destroyed.

Anyway, these are the sorts of things that you'd expect to see cropping up in a first novel, and the story is good enough, the action especially, that it is still eminently readable.