Books read in March 2014

Ruden_AssApuleius: The Golden Ass. Translated by Sarah Ruden.

This translation of a novel written in the Roman Empire almost 2000 years ago was recommended by Elizabeth Hand in F&SF (2013-5/6), and I am sincerely grateful to her for pointing it out. OK, I have not read the original, neither any other translation, but in any case this one was thoroughly entertaining. Ruden has used modern expressions where Apuleius has used the colloquial Latin ones. The novel is a picaresque with several inserted stories, but the main story is about Lucius who is turned into an ass, who cannot talk but understands what is said. There is a lot of violence and sex, even bestiality, and the style is humorous throughout. Highly recommended!

 

HomelandCory Doctorow: Homeland.

This direct sequel to Little Brother, with the same characters and ideas, failed to interest me. It was too much “more of the same”. Still, the central idea, how to use a gigantic Wikileaks-style document to attack corruption, is interesting but should have been developed more.

 

HildNicola Griffith: Hild.

I sincerely looked forward to read this book since I liked her Ammonite and Slow River. This is a historical novel with no fantastic elements. Actually, when Hild makes predictions which appear supernatural, they are based on her active listening and ability to read. Hild is a real historic person living in the 7th century in Britain, where there are conflicts between a lot of small kingdoms and the two branches of Christianity based in Rome and on Ireland. There are also conflicts based on the slow removal of the pagan religion. All this is interesting and many of the characters are well described, especially Hild herself who is depicted as a very strong person. The problem with the novel is that there are just too many characters and too many expeditions to various parts of Britain. Lovers of long fantasy series probably would like it better.

prdglsn1964

Philip E. High: The Prodigal Sun.

This sf from the 1960s was actually quite readable, with a fast-moving and compelling story about a human with super-powers who returns to an Earth that has been devastated by war and is now ruled by a dictatorship.

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the-red-first-light-by-linda-nagataLinda Nagata: The Red: First Light.

Another excellent military sf with combat squads linked with each other and a commanding centre. The story is set entirely on Earth, to begin with in Africa, and the most interesting about it is the uncertainty about why there has to be a war. Is it demanded by the defence industry or is it the media industry that needs a story to tell? The story is well told with believable if somewhat crazy characters. This is just the first book in a series and it is OK as it is, even if there are loose ends.

Books read in February 2014

Den-Nya-Människan-av-Boel-Bermann-2D-663x1024Boel Bermann: Den nya människan. (The New Human.)

Another nice surprise – a well-written, thrilling and thought-provoking sf novel, of course with no mention of being sf other than a note that the author is a member of a blog collective that is focused on fantasy, sci-fi and horror. In the very near future (2014!) no more babies are born.  After some years births start again, but the new babies are strange, they develop rapidly and it is increasingly obvious that they are a threat to humanity. The threat from small babies reminds me of “The Little Assassin” by Bradbury, and the rise of a new race of humans was used by Van Vogt in Slan. This story was more frightening, partly due to the fact that it was set in the here and now. The language was elegant and the use of interspersed scientific or newspaper articles was effective. Highly recommended.

 

abercrombie_blade_itselfJoe Abercrombie: The Blade Itself.

I have hesitated to read this since it was said to be very violent, and OK, so it was, but there was also a lot of humour making the story one of the funniest I have read for some time. It is set in a medieval-ish country with strong rulers and priests, and the main character is a barbarian who has run out of luck. The characters were wonderful, and even if the crippled inquisitor Glokta really got me, I especially liked the two main female characters, Ardee, who used her femininity to her own ends and Ferro who instead knew how to kill. Excellent entertainment.

 

DaysofPerkyPatPhilip K. Dick: The Days of Perky Pat.

The collected short stories 1955-1964 were as a whole somewhat less brilliant than the earlier ones. Still, they feel surprisingly up-to-date, like “Autofac” where automatic factories run amok and start producing more factories – could this happen to 3D printers?

 

The_Haunting_of_Alaizabel_CrayChris Wooding: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray.

This entertaining gothic/steampunk story set in a Victorian London haunted by strange “wych-kins” is extensively described on Wikipedia . In the story a hunter of wych-kins saves a girl who is possessed by an evil spirit. There is a lot of action and a nice atmosphere.

 

forhennesskullElin Holmerin: För hennes skull. (For her.)

A short fairy tale rather than a fantasy story about an elderly archchancellor who falls in love with a criminal girl, set in a fake medieval society with tough aristrocracy and priests. The story did not get me interested.

 

Leckie_AncillaryJusticeAnn Leckie: Ancillary Justice.

This novel has already been nominated for several prestigious prizes. It is the author’s first novel and the first part of a trilogy. It was rumoured to be military sf and that is usually quite boring, but this book was absolutely not boring. A central computer in a space ship completely controls the brains of soldiers who were taken captives in war. This idea is elegantly developed by describing a single soldier who has lost his central ship. The novel has much to say about free will, the human condition, relationships and even sex equality – everyone is taken to be female and the central figure does not care about the difference. Another character has been frozen for a thousand years and his drug dependence and stubbornness make him so very human. I absolutely recommend this novel! Even if I most certainly will read the next novel in the sequence this is not necessary; it definitely is complete in itself.

Books read in January 2014

silverberg_pulpRobert Silverberg: In the Beginning. Tales from the Pulp Era.

Silverberg has been extremely productive for many years. ISFDB lists 84 short stories published in 1957. A small fraction of the early stories (16 from 1955-1959) are reprinted in this collection, together with lengthy and entertaining introductions telling of his collaboration with Randall Garrett and his work as an editor of magazines which he to a large extent filled with his own material. At least the small fraction of stories in this collection are surprisingly readable and have quite a lot to say about bureaucracy, xenophobia and just plain human interactions. The only story that failed to interest me was also the least thrilling one, “New Year’s Eve – 2000 A.D.”, dealing with the question if the new millennium starts at the beginning of the year 2000 or 2001.

 

munro_tiggarflickanAlice Munro: Tiggarflickan (The Beggar Maid).

It might have been due to the translation, so I will have to read her also in English, but I was actually not very impressed by this collection of connected stories by the Nobel Prize Winner. This might be due to the slang and expressions which did not feel true for the time, and this tended to obscure the story that otherwise well described especially how it is to be brought up in a worker’s home and then be married into a rich family. The novel also had a lot to say about motherhood.

 

MasreliezC. Johan Masreliez: The Progression of Time.

This book describes an ambitious project, aiming at explaining several philosophical and cosmological problems, some of which have haunted humanity since antiquity. One of these is whether the universe has existed forever or been formed in a “Big Bang”, and it is then excellent to go back to Parmenides, who, untainted by Christian and other creation myths, about 2500 years ago stated that nothing can be formed from nothing, i. e. that if the universe exists it must have existed forever. Of course, it may be questioned if the universe as we know it does exist as a physical reality or is just a simulation in a computer (as proposed by Nick Bostrom and related in the film The Matrix), but if it does exist it is not intellectually satisfactory to consider that it was just suddenly formed. Another problem that Masreliez tries to solve is if there would be any centrifugal force in a place very far from everything else – in relation to what would there be any rotation? This has some bearing on life in space stations and generation space ships, which usually (in sf) is facilitated by artificial gravity from rotation. Both these are real philosophical problems which I really would like to get solved.

To both these (and several other) problems Masreliez proposes as solution that the scale of the universe is increasing, and that this growth also includes time. However, when everything increases, including the speed of light, atomic vibrations etc., there should be no effects at all, and I have not been able to follow his reasoning when he explains how this would create an absolute reference frame for rotation or the red shift of light from distant galaxies. Masreliez also uses his scale-expansion theory to explain two of Zeno’s paradoxes regarding motion, but fails to argue against the modern explanations. He considers it impossible to use differential calculus for motion since it should follow quantum mechanics, but does not refrain from using this kind of mathematics in his own calculations. His explanation for inertia as a curved space-time phenomenon is to me actually less comprehensive than another explanation for the movement of an arrow he mentions as a bad example, that “a fairy named Sally carries the arrow in her left hand”. Finally, the title of the book suggests that he could explain the nature of time, but at least to me this is not convincing. The book ends with a statement, “Let us be humble…” – the impact of the book would have been higher if Masreliez had not repeatedly attacked his opponents and e. g. accused them of being unwilling to accept new approaches or “motivated by other considerations than science”.

 

blue_rememberedAlastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth.

This is real hard sf at its best. Although much of the biology and technology is hard to believe, no scientific laws are broken, even if some of the information handling appears difficult. This is a story about a society where crime is almost impossible since a central computer monitors everything. It is also a story about a family with lots of conflicts, and about uploading of consciousness into or distant control of androids. The story is set in Africa, an artificial land in the Indian Ocean, on the Moon, on Mars, on an asteroid etc. I liked this very much and I am looking forward to the second volume of this story.

 

PebblesPebbles Karlsson Ambrose: Bergsstjärnan. (Mountain Star)

There is not much sf written in Swedish and every attempt is welcome. This novel starts as a real sf story with a crash-landing of a spaceship on a planet far from the centre of civilization, and the description of nature and life on this planet is as good as in many early sf novels. Space travel and communication is almost instantaneous, but that is quite common in sf stories. However, the use of Latin names of stars and constellations for people (Zeta Orionis!) and empires is really irritating. It is not very likely that planets around the stars of Ursa Major would constitute an empire, and when the child that survived the crash-landing is raised by a woodcarver and then is found and turned into the ruler of an empire the story really becomes a fairy tale rather than sf. The power struggles and relations never get interesting enough, and the handling of conflicts are not convincing.

 

flanneryFlannery O’Connor: Wise Blood.

This captivating novel is said to be in the “Southern Gothic style”, and both characters and the story are clearly odd. In a wonderful language we are told how a discharged soldier becomes a preacher for an atheist “Church of Christ Without Christ”, gets competition, meets a lot of strange people and finally blinds himself. Highly recommended.

 

CoilsofTimeAceM107A. Bertram Chandler: The Coils of Time.

Most of A. Bertram Chandler’s stories describe the adventures of Commodore Grimes in space, similar to ordinary ship stories, e.g. Captain Hornblower. This novel is not part of that series, and is instead about a time machine constructed on Venus and used by a man who wants to change the fate of his beloved who died in an attack on her space ship. Much of the story takes place in a past where the hero of the story is subjected to just too much torture for the story to be worth reading.

 

Fermat-s-Last-TheoremAmir D. Aczel: Fermat’s Last Theorem.

This excellent little book deals with the solution to the problem: Is there any solution to the equation xn + yn = zn where n is a whole number greater than 2. For 2 it is easy: 22 + 32 = 42. In 1637, Fermat wrote in a book that he had found a truly marvellous proof that there is no other value for n that satisfies this equation, but the margin was not sufficient for him to write it down. The story about the final proof in 1995 takes us from a start in cuneiform writing about 4000 years ago via the golden section, topology, imaginary numbers and non-Euclidean geometry. It is entertaining, intellectually rewarding and actually thrilling at the end when the almost final proof is refuted.

 

AldermannsGabriella Håkansson: Aldermanns arvinge. (Aldermann’s Heir)

This book is a long story about the birth in 1800 and early years of a son of a peculiar English gentleman who has based his fortune on sugar from Jamaica. The father was also engaged in a revolutionary society that admires antiquity and wants to apply ideas especially regarding sexuality to our times, and the boy becomes infatuated in Napoleon, whom he actually meets on the island S:t Helena. The story is a pleasure to read, with vivid and interesting characters, well described localities in London and Italy, and I will definitely read volume two of this epic that sheds light on politics and philosophy during an interesting period.

 

consortsJaine Fenn: Consorts of Heaven.

I liked the first volume of Fenn’s Hidden Empire series and this story is set in the same universe although only loosely connected to Principles of Angels. A very large part of the book is about life in a primitive society where the stars are considered to be gods, and people are subjected to religious repression by priests and aliens which are unknown to everyone. This part gets fairly boring and it is only in the end that the story really becomes interesting, even if the female protagonist is quite fetching.

Books read in December 2013

LinuxUttagningenMaths Claesson: Linux. Uttagningen. (Linux. The Recruitment.)

This young-adult sf novel is about a boy who has problems at school but is very interested in astronomy, which is useful when he applies for an education programme leading to space pilot. Tests are carried out at the pleasure ground “Gröna lund” in Stockholm, and the events there are both unexpected and tells a lot about how youths think and interact. This is a well-written start of a trilogy that should be well suited to interest boys and girls in sf.

 

PohlYearsFrederik Pohl: The Years of the City.

Even if some persons appear in several of the five stories in this book it is mainly the future New York that is the main character. The stories tell about problems with families, jobs, disease and corruption, and the individual characters are made believable and engaging. The future New York is covered by domes, and the reader learns how it is to fight at the top of them and to sail by hang-gliding from the skyscrapers inside the domes. Excellent, serious sf!

PohlDrunkardFrederik Pohl: Drunkard’s Walk.

This not entirely successful sf novel with a telepathy theme typical of its time (1960) has a math professor as its main character. There are a few interesting ideas about distribution of faculties in the population and a lecture about the factors in binomial distributions, but the story never gets really interesting.

 

AaronovitchBen Aaronovitch: Rivers of London.

In this entertaining urban fantasy a detective constable who is also being trained as a wizard tries to solve a murder case that involves both ghosts and living persons. He encounters more or less real persons identifying themselves with old rivers flowing into the Thames and with the Thames itself. The novel gives excellent descriptions of central London, and the characters are lovely.

 

redemption_in_indigo_305Karen Lord: Redemption in Indigo.

This short novel is a fantasy or fairy tale based on Caribbean and Senegalese folklore, and is about separation and reunion of a married couple. There us a lot of magic, it is well written and the story is entertaining but the characters are not quite believable and not sufficiently developed.

 

GableGhostsAnna Gable: Ghosts, Drugs & Rock n’Roll.

Although the title is in English this novel is in Swedish, and the language in it is quite good. A seriously drug-dependent rock star marries a nurse, and a ghost in his London house influences their life. There is just too much talk about clothes and looks, and the repeated relapses in drug abuse gets boring. The final parts and the parallel story about the ghost’s life are interesting, but the novel is too long.



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