Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Curse of Chalion - Lois McMaster Bujold

Recommended by Jo Walton over on Tor.com. There are so many thing I love about this book that it is hard to know where to start. First of, Caz is a wonderful main character. To begin with, he's not a teenager, he's 35 (ironically so am I, which is probably why this appeals to me), he's very mature, and he has a lot of life experience. He started out in life as mid-level nobility, then spent years as a soldier and commander, sold as a slave as the result of an 'error', and now reduced to begging for a place in the noble household where he once served as a page. Somehow this hasn't soured him, he is still an extremely lovable character. It is easy to see why the other characters trust and value him so highly, and at the same time also easy to see why he undervalues himself.

Next, there is the religion. In a world where religion is such a powerful force, it would be easy to have characters with little or no free will, but that is definitely not the case here. There are 5 gods (Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) who can't interact with the physical world except by working through people. And they can only work through people who allow them to do so, and even then they are limited by the abilities of those people, including their ability to open themselves up to the gods will. While people who interact directly with the gods are (mostly) revered, their personal experiences are not always positive. Being touched by the gods isn't easy. On top of that, not everyone believes in all the gods - there is a faction (called the Quadrene heresy by the characters in this story) which doesn't believe in the Bastard, although it is entirely clear to everyone who does believe in him that he exists - but you can't have a personal experience of a god you don't believe in, so they continue to disbelieve. I'm not entirely sure why, but I find this extremely cool.

Then there's the story itself, which is awesome. There's a curse (obviously), devious political plots, the coming of age of a princess, a couple totally awesome love stories, exciting chase scenes, all that good stuff.

Finally, I think what makes me absolutely love this book was the characters and their motivations. The world is consistent - you can see how political and social structures have come to be. The characters are well motivated - at no point are their actions contrived. Actions all have reasonable consequences.

This book totally blew me away, and I'm already working my way through several more of Bujold's novels.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lady of Mazes - Karl Schroeder

This is a sort of prequel to Ventus, in that Ventus is dealing with events following the destruction of the rogue AI 3340, and Lady of Mazes includes the birth 0f 3340, but it is mostly an exploration of what it means to be human, and what can happen when you layer virtual reality on top of reality to the point that your body and your consciousness are no longer necessarily in the same place. When you can create virtual versions of yourself, so real that your friends will happily interact with them as if they were you - to the point of getting upset if they don't always have a personal version of you available (in much the same way that everyone is constantly available on their cell these days, except that your cell is being answered by a machine so sophisticated that very few people even care about the difference). Obviously you need to synch up with your alternates frequently enough that you aren't caught totally offguard.

Inscape is a technology that allows you to see the world exactly as you wish, and also causes the world to react to your wishes. You'll never be cold or hungry or lonely, your friends (or copies of them at any rate) are always with you. Life without inscape, as Livia Kodaly discovers following a tour bus accident, is terrifying, difficult, and enough to make the average person simply give up.

Livia's world of Teven Coronal uses "Tech Locks" to create regions of consensual realities called manifolds where only previously agreed-upon levels of technology will operate. Her own manifold of Westerhaven has a relatively high level of technology, however she has visited adjacent manifolds which are quite primitive, even by our standards. While she is visiting, her own high tech will refuse to work for her.

The accident, it turns out, was a warning of worse things to come. Some force is trying to destroy the tech locks and force all technology to be freely available to all people - destroying the manifolds and their way of life in the process. In an effort to get help, Livia and some friends travel beyond the world of Teven Coronal and discover the world of the Archipelago - also occupied by people originally from Earth, also reliant on inscape technology, but without tech locks and with a very different system of government. In this crazy new world of totally unlimited possibility, people have come to rely on AIs, residing within inscape, to craft personal narratives in order to keep everyone sane and happy. Life is virtually meaningless, nothing new is being created, but people's perceptions of their own lives are as full of wonderful things as possible. The dangers of something like this are insidious, and difficult to perceive, and the people of the Archipelago are fascinated by Livia and her life in Westerhaven.

The actual story is fairly interesting - political intrigue in a world without geographical boundaries, battles against technology designed by ourselves to protect and shield us from reality, the possibility of using humans linked together in virtual reality as elements of an incredible artificial intelligence. There's a lot of stuff going on, but I found things were often too bizarre for me to completely follow. Perhaps re-reading would help, but I'm not really in love with the characters enough to do that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mona Lisa Overdrive - William Gibson

This is the sequel to Count Zero, and continues the story begun there and wraps up a few loose ends from Neuromancer. While I'm glad I read this, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Neuromancer. There are four separate storylines going on here: Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza chief who has been sent to London to avoid a Yakuza war; Slick Henry in Dog Solitude who is creating some fairly extreme artwork while recovering from the mind-warping treatment he received in prison; Mona Lisa, so poor that she fell through the cracks virtually at birth, with an uncanny resemblance to the sim-start Angie Mitchell; and finally Angie Mitchell herself - recovering from a drug addiction and searching for Count Zero - who she broke up with a while back.

It is a great story, and I think I would get more out of it if I were to sit down and read all three books back to back. Because the setting is so unusual, it is pretty easy to get the picture in your head wrong and miss important things. One of the things I find hardest to wrap my mind around is Gibson's vision of cyberspace. I'm trying to draw an analogy with the Internet as we know it today, but it is completely different. Ordinary people don't have access to it. Fax machines are ubiquitous (and deliver the morning news - apparently for free) but no one has email, or smart phones. Cyberspace is really a place, with its own inhabitants, and the equipment used to get there doesn't seem easy to come by. I think my main problem with these books is a failure to grasp exactly what Gibson envisions cyberspace to be...and since it is very central to the whole plot...that makes things tricky. I need to re-read these books while being very careful not to conflate Gibson's cyberspace with the internet.

That being said, I love the idea of sim-stars. Angie Mitchell records her entire sensorium and people can play it back to experience exactly what she did while it was being recorded. The incredible contrast between Mona Lisa's life and Angie's is almost overwhelming, and then when you realize that what Mona does for fun is to experience Angie's life via VR...it is a bit mind-blowing. That said, I think I enjoyed the setting and the characters more than the actual story.