Sunday, April 8, 2018

Revelation space

As you can see from my last post I've spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the Revelation Space series recently.  I've liked Alastair Reynolds since House of Suns.  I had heard that this was kind of his magnum opus but I had always been a little intimidated by the sheer number of pages involved.  I finally decided to start last October... when I saw that, after years, he was writing a sequel to The Prefect which came out in January, so I decided to hold off for a little bit.  Since there are 14 short stories and 5 novels, I'll do a series of micro reviews (in in-universe chronological order of course).  Please see the above linked post for the collections where you can find the stories.

[I'll try to avoid character level spoilers but event level spoilers are going to be hard to avoid]

"Great Wall of Mars": This story is a great introduction to all the factions that are tearing apart the solar system at the beginning of the series.  It really feels like you are in media res and there could easily be another story before this but Reynold's story telling is such that you can happily make do with what you have.

"Glacial": This one is basically a thought experiment/murder mystery with the characters from the previous story. Stories like this are basically why I read Alastair Reynolds.  It has a totally unique idea and weaves it into an interesting story.

"Night Passage": A totally distinct set of characters with a little bit of a haunted house story.  Again, Reynolds' understanding of astrophysics shines here as he does some things (believably) that I wouldn't have even thought of.

"A Spy in Europa": Reynolds' version of a spy thriller.  It is an interesting idea but I think that it is less well executed than some of the others.

"Weather": One part love story, one part pirate story, one part mystery this story is less concerned with ideas (though it has several) and more with the characters.  The relationships and interactions all feel very true to life.

The Prefect: This is definitely my favorite novel in the series.  It shows what human culture could achieve with, as Reynolds describes it, "Democratic Anarchy".  Everyone is voting all the time through implants in their skulls.  This combines it with a noir detective thriller where the technology is not just a sideshow, but an integral part of the story.

"Open and Shut": Basically just a check in with the main characters of The Prefect in the aftermath of the story.  If you've read the story, it is a nice stop over between it and the sequel but nothing special by itself.

Elysium Fire: The sequel to The Prefect, another detective story.  This one isn't quite as good, but it is still very good while doing a great job building on the events of the story, showing how they affect our main characters and the world around them.

"Monkey Suit": A ship fleeing a disaster and our narrator has to go out in a refurbished spacesuit.  It's an interesting story about what happens as we give all of our appliances even rudimentary personalities

"Dilation Sleep": To be honest, I barely remember this story.  It's one of the earliest written stories in the series and it shows.  It is basically an exploration of how wealthy can fly around at near the speed of light to avoid current problems.

Chasm City: This is Alastair Reynolds tries to write Phillip K. Dick.  It feels a lot like Minority Report, Total Recall, or Paycheck.  Lots of interesting things with memory and mistaken identity.  It's an interesting story of how far the mighty can fall.

"Diamond Dogs": Alastair Reynolds does Saw or maybe just a puzzle room.  Basically a story that asks how much it is worth sacrificing to achieve goals.

"Grafenwalder's Bestiary": This has similar themes to "Diamond Dogs" with people in the upper echelons competing to own the rarest animals.  It's an interesting epilogue to both that story and "A Spy in Europa".

"Turquoise Days": Alastair Reynolds' take on a vastly different alien life than ours.  It's an interesting idea about how much of our thought processes are recordable and what people would do with that capacity.

"Nightingale": This story covers the aftermath of the historical parts of Chasm City and is the closest we get to a true horror story (a room with walls of skin!).  This story makes me wonder if Reynolds is a pessimist about war and the costs of peace.

Revelation Space: We made it, the "first" book in the series!  This book won Reynolds a bunch of awards and it is easy to see why.  It is jam packed with interesting ideas and characters.  It ties together a bunch of threads and ideas that have been built up in the other stories, while still letting readers who started here be able to follow the action.  It also does some interesting things jumping around in the timeline to make sure that both stories hit the climax at the same time.

"The Last Log of the Lachrimosa": A spooky story where lust for treasure gets the better of a crew.  It does some interesting things with perspective though, to make a mystery within the story.

Redemption Ark: Hope you read "Great Wall of Mars"!  Those characters make their appearance into the main storyline like a hammerblow.  They are suddenly, and for the rest of the series, very important.  Despite that, it's another really enjoyable book and has some of the best space battles of the series.

Absolution Gap: I know a lot of digital ink has been spilled over how this book is not as good as the others, and I fully respect those opinions and see where they are coming from.  However, I really enjoyed this book.  Once the plot finally gets going, which takes a while, it has a lot of interesting moral dilemmas for the characters.

"Galactic North": This story goes from near the beginning of the timeline to the very end concerning a cycle of revenge between two former friends.  It has what I consider to be almost a Reynolds cliche which is two ships chasing each other at very near the speed of light for an extremely extended period of time (due to relativity).  It is a nice little coda to the story, showing that humanity always finds a way to persevere.

Overall, I'd highly recommend the series.  The quality is, of course, a little variable but it is a chock full of great ideas and fun characters.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Revelation Space Timeline

I just finished my journey through all the published Revelation Space stories in (in-universe) chronological order (review of the series in my next post).  I am big on that ordering; my Narnia set starts with The Magician's Nephew and, when Winds of Winter gets announced, I plan to do a reread using the interleaved chapters from A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons.

However, I found that the resources to help someone read Revelation Space in order are in somewhat short supply and I found the ones present to be lacking in various areas.  Some of what I used you can find at the bottom.

Official Alastair Reynolds timeline - Doesn't have events from every story on it, however I consider all dates on it gospel for the purpose of making my own timeline
Neal Ulen's blog - Almost perfect but I dispute a few of his years and the ordering
Wikipedia's timeline - Missing several stories and some of the years definitely don't make sense given the events in the story.  Primarily used to encourage me to make this.

One last thing, if you are not a completionist and want to know if any of these will help your understanding of the Inhibitor Trilogy (the main three books), I would say the top 5 things to read, in order of importance:
  1. "Great Wall of Mars"
  2. "Galactic North"
  3. Chasm City
  4. "Glacial"
  5. "Turquoise Days"
To be clear, I don't believe these to necessarily be the best or most interesting of the stories below, just the ones that add the most depth to the main trilogy. Obviously, the main trilogy can be read without any support but I highly recommend at least reading "Great Wall of Mars" at some point before Redemption Ark because it helps add some development and backstory to the main characters of that book.  (Also, don't read "Galactic North" before the main series, it spoils a lot of what happens).


Some notes on the timeline:
  • If multiple stories cover the same stretch of time, I sort them by their end date
  • I kept all the books together with the exception of Chasm City because I think it is better to read the prologue before the stories that take place concurrently with it (at the same time, I think reading the short stories wholly after Chasm City robs them of a little emotional impact)
  • If my reason for choosing a year contains spoilers for other stories, I'll put it at the bottom so that you can use this as a resource without seeing spoilers.
  • If a story has an epilogue that takes place long after the story, I won't consider that as part of when the story takes place unless it spoils other events
  • The Prefect has been republished in some places as Aurora Rising.
  • "Quoted text" denotes short stories and novellas, italics denotes full novels, blue denotes stories with characters from Prefect Dreyfus Emergencies (a subseries), and green denotes stories with characters from the Inhibitor Trilogy (the main series)


Story Year Book that contains story Explanation for year
"Great Wall of Mars" 2205 Galactic North or
Beyond the Aquila Rift
From AR timeline
"Glacial" 2217 Galactic North From AR timeline
"Night Passage" 2338 Infinite Stars From AR timeline
"A Spy in Europa" 2339 Galactic North Clearly shortly before event in AR Timeline
"Weather" 2358 Galactic North or
Beyond the Aquila Rift
See note [0] at bottom
The Prefect/Aurora Rising 2427 The Prefect Explicitly says year in story
"Open and Shut" 2428 Gollancz Clearly shortly after The Prefect
Elysium Fire 2429 Elysium Fire Stated it takes place two years after events in The Prefect
Chasm City Prologue 2510 Chasm City From AR timeline (technically takes place in 2517 but almost exclusively describes events in 2510)
"Monkey Suit" 2511 Deep Navigation Clearly shortly after event in AR Timeline
"Dilation Sleep" 2513 Galactic North Clearly shortly after event in AR Timeline
Chasm City 2502-2524 Chasm City Explicitly says year in story
"Diamond Dogs" 2500-2527 Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days or Beyond the Aquila Rift See note [1] at bottom
"Grafenwalder's Bestiary" 2530 Galactic North Said to be "two centuries" after the events in "A Spy in Europa" and shortly after the events of "Diamond Dogs"
"Turquoise Days" 2539-2541 Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days From AR timeline
"Nightingale" 2545 Galactic North See note [2] at bottom
Revelation Space 2524-2567 Revelation Space From AR timeline
"The Last Log of the Lachrimosa" 2530 Subterranean Press or
Beyond the Aquila Rift
See note [3] at bottom
Redemption Ark 2605-51 Redemption Ark From AR timeline
Absolution Gap 2615-2727 Absolution Gap Explicitly says year in story
"Galactic North" 2303-40000 Galactic North Explicitly says year in story




(Minor) Spoilers:
[0]: Not many hints on when this takes place but after 2350 based on the AR timeline.  The other websites use 2358 so I will go with that
[1]: The story explicitly starts "a century and a half" after The Eighty but the melding plague hasn't hit yet which doesn't work with the AR timeline.  2500 seems to be about as late as I can put it while still leaving the ending early enough.  The ending year is again, about as late as I can put it.  I would argue that textual evidence implies that it is after the end of Chasm City and hints in "Turquoise Days" imply that that story takes place decades later.
[2]: Clearly after the parts of Chasm City that take place on Sky's Edge. The story says there has been 250 years of war starting immediately after their arrival on Sky's Edge which the official timeline says happened in the 23rd century.  Given people's memories and skills, I think this has to be at most 10 years after the end of the war. Since Khouri arrives on Yellowstone in 2524, and the war was still going when she left, this means the range of possible years of the story is 2510 to 2559 (260 + 2299)
[3]: I know that this one is out of place but I think that it is better read after Revelation Space when you know what the Inhibitors are and their history.  The year is almost entirely conjecture, some point after 2510 and before 2600 but closer to 2510

In addition, I came up with a dependency tree for how all the stories interact.  I'll post it down here since it has minor spoilers.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Angelmaker

After The Gone Away World took the spot for my favorite book read in 2014, I knew it was only a matter of time before I read the rest of the books by Nick Harkaway.  Angelmaker is in no way related to the The Gone Away World but it is absolutely its spiritual successor.

Angelmaker is to thriller detective stories what The Gone Away World was to post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories.  It takes a lot of the absurdist elements of his previous work, reins them in just a tiny, tiny bit, and casts them into a noir setting.


Angelmaker takes a little bit to get going and its absurdism dulls the thriller elements a tad (a tradeoff well worth it in my opinion) but it absolutely has some great payoffs.  Some fun moments include James Bond as an eighty year old woman, a heroic elderly pug, a clockmaker as the protagonist, and of course, a layered and thoroughly absurd conclusion.

When I finished it, I thought that it had perhaps a higher average quality throughout the book than The Gone Away World but lower highs but I also like sci-fi more than thrillers so someone with the reverse preferences might disagree.

Overall, I would give this book an 88%.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Lucifer Effect

Since I was in high school, I have been a big fan of Phillip Zimbardo, his work with the Stanford Prison Experiment sounded so fascinating and troubling (despite replication issues etc).  Therefore, his book, The Lucifer Effect, had been on my to read list for a while.



The majority of the book was a discussion of the aforementioned Stanford Prison Experiment.  It goes into all the details about how even he, nominally a neutral observer, started to get sucked in to all the terrible things the students were doing to each other.  As the general lesson of the experiment is that it doesn't matter what kind of people you have, if you put them into a bad situation, they will act badly, he spends a lot of time emphasizing how it was all random and anyone could have been on either side. 

As someone who had read about the experiment somewhat extensively, this felt like preaching to the choir. Sure, it was interesting to get some intimate details about how the experiment worked, but I already got the core thesis and spending half of the book on this one thing felt like overkill.

The second large chunk of the book was on Abu Ghraib. The parallels to Zimbardo's experiment are obvious.  So obvious, that was the context of most of the discussions I had heard about his work were about how it related to Abu Ghraib.  Zimbardo spends time going into the history and actions of each soldier there and really makes you feel that it wasn't their fault, that it could have been you torturing those inmates if you had been there.

I'll be honest, I didn't finish this section. I skipped over some of the profiles because they seemed redundant given everything I already understood and believed.  I get it, these kids were put in a bad situation.  I get it, they could have been good kids if this hadn't ruined their lives. (Quick aside: neither this book nor I want to trivialize the horrors that happened in this prison.  The American soldiers' lives may have been ruined but something far worse happened to the inmates).  Maybe this section was more poignant when Abu Ghraib was younger but at 10 years past, I think I have seen and absorbed basically every take on Abu Ghraib before I read this.

The last section is the best section of the book and the most interesting to me.  It is about how you can combat the titular Lucifer effect and learn how to be heroic in the situations presented in this book.  Not to give too much away, but he founded a non-profit with the goal of spreading this idea called the Heroic Imagination Project.

I was sad that these very important ideas occupied such a small percentage of the book.  I wish he would have spent more time on this rather than profiling every person charged at Abu Ghraib. 

Overall, I would give this book an 81%.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Phillip K. Dick Reader

The Phillip K. Dick Reader is a selection of 24 Phillip K. Dick stories.  It collects mostly earlier stories from the mid 1950's with the exception of the inspiration for Total Recall (which was published in the 60's).  As with many short story collections, the quality varies, especially for a collection early in an author's career.


All of the stories have the seed in an interesting idea.  One that is particularly memorable to me is  about aliens fishing for humans and what sort of lures they would use.  Other ideas include marketing bomb shelters and robots that try to sell themselves, various post apocalyptic situations, and questioning mental states.  A short story collection like this is a great way to experience the author's work because he had so many interesting and unique ideas, even if they weren't always executed perfectly.

My favorite story in the book is the basis for the movie Paycheck (which I didn't know until I started writing this blog post), which I haven't seen (and from the rotten tomatoes rating, maybe I shouldn't).  It follows a man who has lost his memory and put himself in a perilous situation. However, he has mailed himself a few items which are all critical in the present time.  It's a fun deduction game to determine how the pieces are going to be used to help the protagonist.

Overall, I would give this collection an 89%.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Art of Manliness

The Art of Manliness was a gift and is probably not something I would have picked up on my own, but since it was on my shelf, I decided to give it a read.  With that title, you may be worried that it is some awful Men's Rights propaganda, I promise it isn't.  What it actually is is sort of an brief exploration into a variety of skills deemed manly (and some that aren't now that used to be).

There are some interesting skills in here like how to shave with a straight razor (I've stuck with my electric), how to rock a pocket square (forgot that this was in this book and the one time I've needed a pocket square since reading this, I've googled it), and a fireman's carry (already knew how to do this before reading this book but I've still never done it in practice).  That isn't to say that all the skills are useless but the book is too large to be a pocket handbook and not detailed enough to really give you the knowledge you need on how to do most of these things just by reading it.

The book blends an interesting mix of skills from the Victorian days (like how to generate an appropriate bouquet for your apology) and modern things that "men" should know how to do (like how to land a plane without a pilot) and some of the book is interesting reading solely to learn about some of those historical "skills".  Unfortunately, the modern manly skills I'd like to learn, like how to fix a poorly plumbed two sink set up, are not present in this book and I probably won't have this book with me on a crashing plane.

The book also contains some meditations on manliness and one of those includes a quote that jives really well with my general ethos.  
A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around. E. W. Howe
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/e_w_howe_152795
 A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around. - E.W. Howe.
 Obviously, if everyone followed this quote, no one gets any pie and everyone is sad heroes.  But I think it does encompass a spirit of everyday self-sacrifice that can be missing in many people's lives.

In sum, I'm not sure I learned that much practical stuff from this book, but it was an interesting read.  If this sounds interesting to you they have a website and podcast and other media: https://www.artofmanliness.com/

Overall, I would give this book an 84%.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Golden Age

Warning: While I try to keep these posts as spoiler free as possible, when discussing the later books in a series, it is difficult to avoid spoiling details of the earlier ones (though with Narratives of Empire you will probably get more spoilers from a passable knowledge of American history).

The Golden Age is the last book in the Narratives of Empire series, both chronologically and in publication order and closes out the series in a somber note.  However, much of the book takes place concurrently with Washington D.C.  following the adventures of some of the characters that he added in books later in the publication order.  However, it then continues past that through the end of the 20th century.

While wrapping up the stories of all the characters with varying degrees of satisfaction, this book also enhances and continues the cynical bent of the latter book and basically flat our accuses FDR of warmongering.  The title is, as you may expect, also a cynical slant on American history.

The Golden Age also has a fair amount of discussion of America's growth as a cultural epicenter, following up on many of the threads in Hollywood.  Gore Vidal himself makes an appearance within the pages of the book, more than once no less.

I think if you don't like FDR that much or if you like unpopular historical takes, these books will be fascinating.  I know I was very interested to see the way that FDR was portrayed continue as the modern world is so effusive in its praise of him.  However, it also makes you wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is dramatized and how much of it the author wishes were true.

Bringing the series to a close, it is somewhat depressing to do it on this note, I wish he had continued further into the cold war rather than dig so deeply into FDR for two books.  I think it leaves the series somewhat unbalanced (two books of focus on FDR, George Washington barely above a cameo in Burr). I think the years between ~1960 and 2000 could have benefited from a more detailed viewing.

However, this book is what it is and while I think the author could have picked better subject matter, it does provide some interesting views (though one has to wonder what the series would have been like if he had his ideas for the whole thing when he was writing Washington D.C. originally).  The fictional characters are all vividly imagined and the historical figures seem like they could have stepped right out of a history book.

Overall, I would give this book an 88%.