Archive for the 'Art' Category

Book Review: Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross

Saturn's Children rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed by this – Stross has the capability to produce something much better. This book has a twist (look ma, no humans!) and some of the ideas are pretty interesting – but frankly I think he’s writing too much and too hard. This could have done with maturing for a lot longer.

The main character is very reminiscent of the lead from Friday by Robert A. Heinlein which is apparently intentional. As with Friday the lead is a robot made for erotic purposes. For what it’s worth, the supposedly erotic parts of this book are pretty flat, and as an hommage I don’t think it’s that great.

Still, it’s reasonably well paced and trots along pretty well, so won’t be a complete disappointment. This is up for the 2009 Hugo, but if it wins I’ll eat my hat (in fact if anything other than Anathem wins I’ll eat my hat!).

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Book Review: Spirit by Gwyneth Jones

Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant (Gollancz S.F.) rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is real quality. It is also unfortunately extremely difficult to describe.

The blurb on the back claims it is a “high octane retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo” which is correct as far as it goes – the basic elements of the story are there. However, the baroque setting, the dreamlike quality of the narrative and the fantastic nature of the characters makes this quite a different proposition.

Highly recommended.

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Book Review: Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod

Song of Time rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very well executed piece set in the near future. At the end of her life a woman looks back on her life as a musician, having lived through many of the defining moments of the 21st century. Although this is SF it has strong literary leanings and the characterisation is excellent, rich, sympathetic and three-dimensional.

In many ways this needn’t be set in the future, and as such is not really science fiction, except for the one issue it deals with sparingly but clearly throughout the book, that of uploading. As the lead character reflects on her life, the book reflects on the meaning of identity, and how this could meaningfully be transferred to a different reality.

This book deserves a much wider reading than I suspect it will receive.

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Book Review: Flood by Stephen Baxter

Flood rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stephen Baxter is a prolific author, and it shows in a number of his works – they are very Clarkeian, taking an interesting idea (in this case a vast planet drowning flood) and following it to it’s conclusion.

As with many of his books the typical cast of scientists are generally unreflective and fail to present a plausible inner life in response to what is going on around them.

Undoubtedly, as with Clarke, this is because Baxter is more interested in pursuing his idea to it’s conclusion, rather than the the inner life of his characters. This is not atypical of SF in general, but it’s particularly marked in Baxter’s work because often, as in this book, the central theme is a terrifying extinction event where we once again see the last few humans struggling to survive. This makes their general lack of reflection seem even more psychopathic than in less extreme works.

Aside from these flaws it’s reasonably compelling and has a sort of gruesome inevitability about it which is quite satisfying.

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Book Review: Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthingrating: 5 of 5 stars

Bizarrely published by Tor, the SF publisher, this isn’t SF at all. Instead it is an alternate history novel reminiscent of Fatherland. Beautifully written with rich, complex characters, the book is set in a country house after an alternate World War II where the US did not join the war, and the UK signed a “peace with honour” with the third reich.

The setting carefully presents a juxtaposition of an Agatha Christie-esque Edwardian setting with simmering antisemitism and class obsession, providing a really memorable story.

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Income and averages

[The following facts, and the point, come from The Tiger That Isn’t by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot.  A book every person in the UK should read]

What is the average income in the UK? You’d think everyone would be able to get this right, since it has such a strong bearing on, well almost everything.  So, is it £14,000, £18,800 or £23,000?  (these are 2005/2006 figures, update: and are the incomes for childless couples – the incomes combined of two people living together).  There’s quite a spread there, so you should be able to get the right one.

The answer is… all three of them.  Because it depends how you measure averages.  The mean – what most people call “average” is £23,000.  This is the number you get if you add up all the incomes and divide by the number of them.  That’s the most common meaning of average.  But the other two kinds are useful too.  £18,800 is the income that divides the population in half, the median – half of the people have incomes lower than that, and half have higher.  And £14,000 is the mode – the most common income.

A lot of people might be surprised that the most common income is £14,000.  To put it in context, that’s just under £1200/month.  A salutary thought for some of us, I suspect.

The important thing to note of course isn’t the absolute numbers but the relationship between them.  £23,000 is an awful lot more than £14,000, but £23,000 is the one used in a lot of policy judgments.  That £23,000 figure is in fact pretty much useless – it’s completely skewed by all the tremendously wealthy people out there.  If you are making policy for the majority, the fact there are a few Roman Abramoviches around is actually uninteresting – but their incomes go into that number too.

The small number of wealthy have a tremendous impact on the average – 80% of the world’s population earn less than the average.  So what value the average?  This isn’t a rant against the wealthy – the reason they can skew the total so far is really because incomes don’t go below zero.

As an example, what is the average number of feet a human being has?  Clearly the vast majority of people have two feet.  Howevver, some people have only one foot, so the average is less than two – perhaps 1.999 feet.  So how about that, almost everyone has more than the average number of feet – we’re rich in feet!

Feet are not something where the mean tells us much – and nor is income.

What is the point of this?  Well, I was surprised by the above – very surprised that when the “average income” number is tossed around on TV there’s no thought by those doing the tossing into which average they should use.  Most of the people watching who hear the average income is £23k probably think they earn well below average, and so are poor, when in fact most of them are probably, really, average.

If something so fundamental can be interpreted so badly by journalists, then beware any other numbers they use!

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

The Steel Remains The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Summary: A strong entry into the fantasy genre that may disconcert many typical fantasy readers.

Richard Morgan has previously only written science fiction. His SF writing is excellent, with a gritty, noir style that suits the genre.

This is his first attempt at fantasy, and the result is very interesting. A lot of fantasy is suitable for kids – this is not. It contains graphic descriptions of homosexual sex and rape, and some very strong violence as well. In fact, homosexuality has a strong presence in the book – two of the lead characters are gay and the past of one is strongly coloured by the prejudice he encountered.

This sort of thing is unusual for this genre, which rarely has such strong characters. It is reminiscent of Steven Donaldson‘s Thomas Covenant perhaps, with one of the characters, Ringil also tormented by his past. I doubt absolution awaits him at the end of these books though.

The setting is particularly interesting, with some strong hints that in later books (this is clearly the first of several) we may learn enough to understand the detail of the ‘magic’ that takes place, and perhaps relate the setting to the real world. This is much more of a science fiction trait than a fantasy one, and I wonder if by the end we will be calling this a science fiction rather than a fantasy series, even though it contains some obvious fantasy elements: people hitting each other with swords, etc.

Overall this is a strong start for a new series of books, and continues Morgan’s writing from the ‘dark side’. Morgan handles the strong issues of sexuality and prejudice well.

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The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself (The First Law: Book One) The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Top notch fantasy from a new author. Distinguished, as with a lot of modern fantasy, by complex unsympathetic characters and a very detached moral attitude.

The characters are strong, varied and interesting and they develop believably as individuals during the story.

The backstory for the world as it is, and the unfolding storyline is deftly done, without the whole “and now the quest” bit that is common in more average fantasy.

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The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

The Night Sessions The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is probably Ken Macleod’s best book to date.

In previous novels, Macleod has tackled Trotskyism ( The Star Fraction), he has created a society that implements Nozick’s brand of Libertarianism outright ( The Stone Canal), and he has explored the war on terror ( The Execution Channel).

In this book he moves his sights to religion. The attacks of September 11th 2001 become the opening salvo in the Faith Wars, wars that the west did not win. The backlash against religion is severe, with the police pursuing a “Boots in Pews” policy throughout the UK as all religion is persecuted.

As usual for Macleod and the other new Scottish hard-SF authors, the novel is primarily set in Scotland. MacLeod’s use of the familiar (to him) always serves to give his work a sense of realism and grounding that provides good counterposition with the strong-SF elements of the story, in this case the development of global warming and AI.

Interestingly, the book also shares a view of the development of the internet with Charles Stross Halting State – in fact the non-singularity near future authors view of the intertubes seems to be converging on convergence, so to speak.

The best fiction, no matter it’s setting, always speaks to the reader about their world as it is now. The very best can do this through millenia, because they deal with the generics of human nature. Science fiction is not like this – it ages rapidly and painfully. However, when it is fresh and appropriate, as this is, it’s relevance can be startling. Nobody can read this book without a sense of foreboding, as so much of it feels painfully possible.

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Modernism begins at home

Definitely track of the week here at winjer towers.