Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Blue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth is the first book in Reynolds’ new “Poseidon’s Children” series, and it’s quite interesting. Though technology does feature heavily in the story, it’s perhaps less focused on high-tech than many of his other books. Or, perhaps, the technology just merges into the background more, even though it has important implications. Here, a future Earth in the year 2160 is quite different from our own; an eco-catastrophe has come and gone, and left the geopolitical structure totally changed. China, India and Africa are the new global superpowers, and the book itself focuses on the Akinya family, a powerful African corporate force. After the death of their influential grandmother, siblings Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya start to uncover clues left by her that point to some form of hidden treasure. The main plot features a treasure hunt of sorts across the solar system, and involves everything from elephants and underwater transhumans to mysterious space stations.

While the plot is decent and makes for an interesting read, the star here is the setting. Reynolds’ future Earth is quite different from your normal eco-catastrophe scenario, being quite optimistic about things. Here, humanity has mostly managed to repair the damage, and has also instituted a (mostly) benign form of a Panopticon in the form of “The Mechanism”, a surveillance system which constantly monitors everyone via their implants. Naturally enough, not everyone is happy with the constant surveillance, and some have formed off-planet “off the grid” colonies. Here, again, the general mood is positive; while a global surveillance system has Orwellian overtones, here it is mostly viewed as a positive force and one enabler for global peace. It’s possible that future books in the series change that tone, of course.

The pace is slower than in many other of his books, but overall I liked it, it’s a refreshing change from the omnipresent dystopias without being too cheerily optimistic. Looking forward to the next books in the series.

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Minireview: Zima Blue, by Alastair Reynolds

Zima Blue is the newest collection of short stories from Alastair Reynolds. It’s more eclectic in subject matter than the earlier “Galactic North” collection; where that earlier book was mostly “hard scifi” in the style of his novels, this one contains much more genre variation. I have to say that on the whole I liked Galactic North a small bit more, but this is also a quality collection with some awesome stories in it.

I’ve read three of these stories before, I think as parts of Gardner Dezois’ “Best SF of the Year” collections: the title story “Zima Blue”, another one called “Spirey and the Queen” and lastly “Beyond the Aquila Rift” (which is perhaps my favorite here). All are excellent. Other standouts are “Understanding Space and Time” (which features Elton John on Mars, sort of), “Signal To Noise” (a very different alternate worlds story), and “Minla’s Flowers”.

The edition I have is a new 2009 one, which expands the original 2006 publication with some new stories: “Digital to Analogue”, “Minla’s Flowers”, “Cardiff Afterlife”, and “Everlasting”.

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Minireview: Galactic North, by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is best known for his novels, especially the “Revelation Space” loose series of books, but he’s also an excellent short story writer. This collection is his first (I’m not counting the dual-novella “Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days” book), and collects some of his older stories; some of them are precursors to ideas and themes he later expanded into novels.

I like Reynolds a lot in general, and the stories here are almost uniformly excellent. Some I had read earlier in Dezois’ “Best SF of the Year” collections; the excellent “A Spy in Europa” was one of these, as was the titular “Galactic North”. “Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” also seemed familiar, I think I’ve read it before. On the other hand, many of these stories were new to me and some were quite excellent (especially the tense “Nightingale”, where a covert team goes out to explore a “ghost ship” vanished during a war). The stories here are all in the same genre (hard scifi, with tinges of the “new British space opera” style), and are very much worth reading. Reynolds has always been an “idea man” and not always all that hot on deep characterization – in a way he’s the modern version of Arthur C. Clarke in that regard. The short story form plays up to his strengths, as it did for Clarke.

Excellent collection, recommended.

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Minireview: House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

Reynolds is a weird writer. Not in what he writes – it’s fairly straightforward modern huge-scale “space opera”, in the style of Iain M. Banks and others. Weird in that he seems to polarize opinions a lot, without any (to me) clear reason as to why that is. I love his books, as do many others. However, I know many people who more or less can’t stand his books. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but it’s something to do with his characters I think. Now, he has always been an “ideas writer” (and oh boy, what ideas), while his characterization has been at best “ok”. Like early Arthur C. Clarke, his characters tend to be fairly two-dimensional, and when he does try to make them more interesting the results can be mixed. Now, I’m ok with that, his ideas are just so good that I’m willing to forgive some bland characters – but maybe some other people are much more sensitive to that. Dunno.

In any case, Alastair Reynolds is one of the few modern-day writers who can elicit a true sense-of-wonder feeling in me. He writes in the large (huge!) scale, and is fascinated by concepts like Deep Time (what happens to civilizations and sometimes individuals when the time scales examined stretch to millions of years). A lot of his books go in the “transhumanist” genre, i.e. how much can humans adapt and change while still being “human” on some scale. It’s heady stuff. Well, to me at least.

His latest novel, House of Suns, is a worthy addition to his line of books. In fact, I’d rate it among his best works, if not quite the best. It’s set in its own universe, distinct from the “Revelation Space” books… probably. It could be argued that it might be set in the same universe, but due to the viewpoint in the book that does not really matter.

The story concerns an “illegitimate” couple, Campion and Purslane, who are decendants… or actually, clones of one Abigail Gentian. You see, way back when Abigail decided to clone herself into 1,000 copies and start wandering the universe at a spread-out “cloud” of “identical” people. She wasn’t the only one to do so, and these “Lines” form a galactic power block at the time the story takes place (which is millions of years after the first cloning). Millions in absolute terms anyway, though for the clones it has “only” been some tens of thousands of years of relativistic time. They are not immortal, but it’s close. Campion and Purslane are breaking one of Abigail’s original edicts by sleeping together, a taboo of sorts… and one they expect to get punished for, soon.

Every once in a long while, the whole Gentian Line meets up and exchanges memories and other things. The next meet is approaching. Campion and Purslane hurry to make the rendezvous but are sidetracked by… an event, which leaves them host to Hesperus, one of the Machine People. After that, they get a message, one that makes it clear that someone is trying to kill off the whole Gentian Line… and they are next.

After that, things get complicated. The story is interspesed here and there by Abigail’s memories, recounting hes childhood and events that made her make the leap into infinity.

It’s a great book, featuring Reynolds trademark immense time spans and lots of musing on what it may tak e for a civilization to survive in the long run. Modern-day humanity may imagine it’s been on the planet and “civilized” for ages now, but really, that time is a gnat’s eyeblink in galactic (or even “geological”) terms. How does one survive as a coherent civilization for 100,000 years? A million years? Ten million? Can you engineer a society for that? Must you?

The very end is maybe a tiny bit anticlimactic compared to the buildup, but at the same time it’s very fitting… so I can’t complain about it much.

People who already like Reynolds should love this. People who dislike his books won’t find anything here to change their minds, I suspect.

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Minireview: The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds

Right off the bat: I like Alastair Reynolds as a writer, I like his style of doing Iain M. Banks -style space opera with lots of really nifty ideas. He may not be the best character developer in the genre, but he’s not the worst either – and I feel he’s gotten better, his characters seem more 3d in these later books. His main strength remains his ideas – and oh boy, does he have those.

Anyway, I think The Prefect is one of his best books so far, along with the (also) recent book Pushing Ice. Like that book, events here start off small (well, “small” for a Reynolds book anyway) and slowly escalate into larger and more complex things. I don’t want to spoil things so I won’t elaborate much on that here. The story starts off as a police procedural: there’s the almost-burned-out (mostly) honest cop with a dark past as the protagonist, there’s the weird case that seems clear-cut but which conceals a lot of things that various parties very much want to keep hidden, there are various levels of bureaucracy that need to be navigated in order to pursue the case. And then things go south, fast, and everyone is suddenly scrambling just to keep alive.

If you like modern space opera in the style of Banks (or Reynolds, if you’ve read his other stuff), this is a highly recommended book. It fits into Reynolds’ future history, taking place in the Glitter Belt before the Plague – but it’s quite stand-alone; the links to other parts of the future history are present here mostly for flavor reasons.

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Pushing Ice (and mobile phone crimes against humanity)

I haven’t read all that much fiction lately; I’m a fairly slow reader compared to some, and I’ve also read a lot of roleplaying sourcebooks which further cut down on fiction. Anyway, the Akateeminen bookstore had (and maybe still has?) a 20% sale on all paperbacks, prompting me to pay them a visit and grab few – well, 8 or so – books that had been on my “should buy” list.

Last night I finished the first of those, Alastair Reynold’s Pushing Ice. Quite a ride. As one SF Site review says:

Alastair Reynolds’s novels are reliably fascinating at the “big idea” level. He’s got a truly first rate hard-SF imagination, and the chops to take cool ideas and reveal them via action plots, often hiding the really neat ideas convincingly until the end. He is a “light speed limit” author, and fascinated with Deep Time. And all this describes Pushing Ice quite excellently.

Quite. It starts off fairly low-key and low-tech, for a Reynolds book: in the year 2057, Janus – one of Saturn’s moons – suddenly starts behaving in a decidedly un-moonlike manner and accelerates towards Spica. The ice miner ship Rockhopper is the only ship in position to rendezvous, and despite some crew misgivings is diverted to investigate. Needless to say, things get dangerous and weird at a very fast pace, and without spoiling things I’ll just note that there are quite a few surprising plot turns along the way.

Central to the story is also the relation between captain Bella Lind and her friend, engineer Svetlana Borghesian. It’s perhaps not totally believable all the time and gets a little too long-term bitchy, but it still grounds all the ultra-tech in a human foundation. As always, Reynolds’ characters are not quite 3d enough, but it’s not bad – he’s a lot better at characterization than many other hard-sf writers are.

While I’ve always liked Reynolds (his debut Revelation Space kicked serious ass), this is maybe the most intresting thing I’ve read from him in a while; Century Rain, which I’ve also heard good things about, is still in the reading list pile. Sense of wonder, twists you don’t see coming, and enough action to keep things moving: what else can you ask of a summer book?

On to something else: I’ve always said that Nokia’s mobile phone UIs suck. I still hold by that claim, they suck mightily. Anyone who works at Nokia and has anything to do with UI design: game over, you’ve failed, sorry no bonus. Try sheepherding, it’s much more relaxing and people will hate you less.

The newer Symbian phones are actually more difficult to use than my ancient 7110 – and that’s no mean feat. My current theory is that the Nokia UI R&D department is actually manned by aliens who have no idea how actual humans think or work, but are trying to figure it out with fiendish experiments in UI design. That, or it’s drunk gerbils. Not sure.

Anyway… my “personal work phone”, a Nokia 6630, suffered a hardware breakdown during the weekend; the screen just started blinking and became unreadable. Luckily there’s still warranty left, so I took it to a shop and they sent it off for repairs, “it’ll take 2-3 weeks” I’m told. So we scrounged around at work for some phone I could use in the interim, and found an older Siemens phone. Mistake.

Now, as I’ve said, Nokia sucks in the UI department. But compared to the Siemens, it’s like sweet nectar from heaven. That thing is totally fucking awful, there is no logic to any part of it. Buttons change semantic meaning totally at random, the menus are confusing (if you can even find them), and to top it off, the damn thing just froze when someone tried to call it earlier, total software crash. It’s so bad that at the moment I’m charging the batteries on my ancient 7110 (yes, the “Matrix phone”, and yes, mine still works). I’d much rather use that stone-age piece of tech than suffer one more day with the craptastic Siemens.

Sigh. Why can’t we get a nice mobile phone that has both a good UI and reasonable technical specs? Don’t mention the iPhone, please, since in order for the iPhone to be even worth mentioning here in Finland it would need:

  • 3G
  • MMS
  • lack of lock-in to a single provider
  • reasonable price (300-400e max)

At the moment it looks like the iPhone will be a fancy dud, at least here in Europe where expectations of what a mobile phone needs to do are considerably higher than in the U.S. Pay 600-700e for a provider-locked phone without reasonable modern network support? What sort of idiot, other than the random Apple fanboy, would do that?

So the wait continues.

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