Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
The first time I read this book, I was very conscious of everything people were saying about it in terms of how it treated gender, how it was feminist, etc, etc. I think reading it with those expectations did it a disservice — the way it handles gender is fascinating, and it’s definitely intriguing to get this look at another world where gender isn’t indicated grammatically or socially. But that’s not all this story is. It’s also an adventure, a thriller even; it’s about political machinations when you’re a being who can be divided against yourself in your opinions. It’s about AI and how to control them, about empire and how it functions. There’s a little bit of Rome in it, but there’s a lot of other influences as well.
Which is to say, it’s not about gender. If anything, the most powerful aspect of this book this time round was Breq’s repeated refrain, the closing words: “Choose my aim, take one step and then the next. It had never been anything else.”
When you’re not worried about figuring out who is what gender, and whether that’s clever or subverting your expectations or what, it’s a smoother read, and one in which you can become attached to the characters. Lieutenant Awn — I don’t know what she looks like, nor do I care. I care what she does in the moment, and about her regret for acting or not acting. I care about Breq’s determination to be worthy of the person Awn was. Despite myself, I even care about Seivarden — a snob, a jerk, but also someone who begins to try to be something more.
Going into Ancillary Justice at a remove from the buzz, just because I wanted to reread it and enjoy it, was an excellent decision. I don’t expect my experience of Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy to change in that way, because I already knew what to expect at that point — but I’m quite prepared to find more depth there than I saw the first time.
The Drowning City, Amanda Downum
I first read this ages ago, and quickly followed it up with the second book, but then didn’t get onto reading the third book. So I felt like I needed to refresh my memory. The first book wasn’t my favourite, and I still think the second is probably stronger, but the idea of a spy necromancer running around fomenting rebellion remains pretty darn cool. The cultures are a little bit… umm. They feel like very obvious analogues. But I give Guy Gavriel Kay a pass for that, so Amanda Downum can have it too — and mostly her mythology hangs together and everything works, so that’s fine.
Issylt is a pretty awesome main character, though her relationship with Kiril still… doesn’t entirely make sense to me, and I don’t feel like I can root for her to actually get what she wants in that regard. He’s older than her, and they probably shouldn’t have been in a relationship at all. Still, there’s something to be said also for her perspective that it’s her decision, and he shouldn’t shelter her from the consequences of it. People do that with women, real and fictional, far too often.
Zhivrin is less appealing as a character, but her arc works well, and her ending has a perfect bittersweetness. I love how it’s foreshadowed, as well. Xinai, well, I feel like she more or less got what was coming to her — I can sympathise to some extent with anger at imperialism and the damage it can do, but I don’t understand fighting back against that at any cost. Particularly not when the cost is your own people.
Both times I’ve read this book, I’ve finished it in almost one sitting, so that’s something else to be said for it. But now, onwards!
The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
This is more of a memoir about experiences with octopuses than a popular science book about them, despite where Waterstones shelved it (at least in Brussels). It can get a bit woolly at times, since Sy Montgomery seems pretty preoccupied with how she experiences her meetings with octopuses, and what it does to her soul, but there are some interesting bits and I did enjoy reading about the individual personalities of Athena, Kali, Karma and Octavia.
Sometimes I’m not sure at all how well founded her speculations are — for example, she mentions a theory about an octopus taking a dislike to someone because it could taste the fact that she was on medication. Theoretically, I guess that’s possible, but practically, I’m not sure it’s true — or how on earth we could possibly know what an octopus senses, and whether it likes or dislikes what it finds.
Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds is the better book about octopuses, I think, and goes more into a philosophical examination of their consciousness. This is mostly about Sy Montgomery — which might be your thing, but isn’t so much mine. The more I think about it, the less I rate it.
What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Addy Pross
I’m rather underwhelmed by this book. Though it is praised as “uncover[ing] the chemical roots of Darwinian theory, thereby opening a novel route connecting biology to chemistry and physics” (and by a Nobel prize winner, no less!), I think this route is far from novel. It’s always been obvious to me that biology is chemistry in living cells, that all the rules of chemistry derive from properties described by physics, and indeed that physics is based on mathematics and mathematics on logic. This just doesn’t seem revelatory to me — it’s apparent from the first time you understand that enzymes are simply manufactured catalysts and that RNA can replicate itself. And I understood that when I was doing my AS Level in biology, if not before, so that was 2007. This wasn’t published until 2012! So I can’t have unconsciously absorbed the conclusions of this book via somewhere else.
As a survey of exactly how the subjects link up, it works relatively well. The writing is clear and the logic works, and if you didn’t connect the dots for yourself, it allows you to do so. It’s perhaps a little more specific than my 2007 understanding, referencing RNA experiments I hadn’t heard of, but the basic theory has always been apparent to me. I don’t understand how it is considered controversial or groundbreaking.
Perhaps this is more surprising to scientists who have been stuck within their own segregated area, though. As an outsider whose contact with science was limited to New Scientist and popular science books from 2007 to 2014, perhaps my simpler view of things helped me to connect the dots, where an actual biologist just couldn’t accept that biology is simply chemistry when it seems so much more complex. It seems odd to me, but it’s all I can think of. And it’s not as though I’m a chemistry or physics superfan — I’m happy to stay on the level of biology!
Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel
I was hooked by the premise of this right away, and though I have some reservations about the transcript/extract format, I think that was part of it as well. It made each section really quick to read, and tantalising as well; the limited nature of each snippet gave as many questions as answers in most cases, and leads on to the next bit — and the next, and the next. Perhaps the best way to sum up my experience with this book is to say that I read a chapter… and then accidentally read another, and another, and then the next morning I got a copy of the book to my wife so we could read it together. (And at one point in the middle of the night, I uttered the words “shit!” loud enough to disturb her. Oops.)
The transcript format doesn’t quite work for me all the time; it does introduce rather a distance between the reader and the characters, and some of the action scenes are extremely awkward because of the way they’re narrated. But overall, particularly for the more static scenes, it worked — I found it tantalising, rather than frustrating.
The characters are not all exactly lovable, but I got wrapped up in them anyway — perhaps most in the one we know least about. Clark Gregg, as he played Phil Coulson, would be my fancast for the unnamed facilitator. And I really, really want to know what’s up with his personal situation, as alluded to by Mr Burns.
(Sorry there’s so many vaguenesses in this review. I tried to preserve as many of the “oh shit!” moments for people who haven’t read it yet, while giving an idea of how intrigued I was.)
Onto the sequel, with great haste.
Byzantium, Judith Herrin
This is clearly a labour of love: Herrin knows her stuff, and is trying to communicate it to a broader audience. Sometimes this results somewhat in insulting the general reader’s intelligence, and yet at other times she gets deep into minutiae rather than covering the stuff that might really interest people — like the role of mutilation (instead of assassination) in political takeovers. I wanted a lot more of that, and yet this one review explains it much more thoroughly. And yes, that’s a very brief explanation, but it’s more than Herrin did.
Byzantium is a fascinating empire, and we do owe more to it than we often believe. Rome dominates our thoughts, both in religion and in history — especially in Britain, of course, since we were ruled by Romans and then our entire state religion is based on a reaction to Roman Catholicism. But Byzantium has much to teach us about the European past as well.
Herrin definitely has a bias toward Constantinople and their way of worshipping and… just about everything. At times, an apparent hostility to Roman Catholicism breaks through, which is rather odd from a scholar (and yet, might have made the book more interesting if it were a bit more apparent — you have to choose which way to go, and make it clear).
Interesting read, but does get a bit bogged down in details and repetitive.
The Dispatcher, John Scalzi
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 21st April 2017
I pounced to request this as soon as I saw it. John Scalzi reliably writes solid, entertaining stories, and I usually enjoy his central idea. I didn’t actually read the blurb on this one, so it took me a little while to get settled into exactly what was going on — I think I actually preferred it that way, because it made the opening of the story a little more confusing but in the way where you can start to work it out if you’re interested.
I don’t love the main character; while I like seeing grey areas in fiction, I felt like his character wasn’t explored enough for me to understand why he worked within grey areas and how he felt about it. With a little more of that context, I’d probably have enjoyed the whole story more — I tend to connect to characters before clever ideas, however clever the ideas are. Still, I found the story enjoyable, and though the idea is weird and you don’t know how it could possibly work, it’s a fun intellectual exercise to posit these constraints and then write a mystery story within them. Don’t worry too much about the how and why of the Dispatchers and what they do, because that aspect isn’t what the story is interested in.
My only quibble would be that some of the dialogue wasn’t really signposted well enough. Without knowing the characters extremely well, it’s hard to tell which is speaking, and there were long stretches here where it was just a back and forth of dialogue. Sometimes it worked, but not always.
Definitely enjoyable, pretty much as I’d expect from Scalzi.
The Human Brain, New Scientist
It may not be surprising to learn that this collection, featuring articles and features about the human brain, was absolutely right up my street. If you’re interested in the human brain, but you’re not ready to dive into a full book about it, this makes a great, varied collection, focusing on different things like memory formation, the ageing brain, psychology, sleep…
There’s a lot of stuff in here, but it’s all in bitesize chunks. I do recommend this, and the other New Scientist collections — but if you’ve collected issues religiously, there’s nothing new in here as far as I know.
Mightier than the Sword, K.J. Parker
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 30th June 2017
I’ve enjoyed a couple of Parker’s novellas, even though I still haven’t got round to the novels I’ve been sitting on for, uh, a while. So I was pleased to be approved for the ARC of this from Subterranean Press. The ebook is a little bit of a mess — or mine was, anyway — but that’s presumably only going to be a problem for the Netgalley version, and it didn’t get in the way of the reading experience.
I’m also a big fan of books which play with manuscripts, and though that’s a minor part of this story, it was still pretty cool. The main character is fun, and the whole tone works really well to make it sound like a romp, even when there’s a certain amount of pillaging and violence going on. I called the twists, but getting there was still a fun ride. I think The Last Witness is still my favourite for sheer smarts, but this was definitely very enjoyable.
The Prince and the Pilgrim, Mary Stewart
Although this fits into the Arthurian world constructed by Stewart in The Crystal Cave and the books that followed it, The Prince and the Pilgrim is really a separate story which has perhaps more in common with her romances. She takes a short incident from Malory and expands on it, and dwells on Morgan and her wicked seductive ways (yawn) into the bargain. It’s not a bad story, and her gift for evoking atmosphere and landscape shines through, but I found it very light. The most intriguing aspect involved the references to the Merovingian kings and the way it wove Alice’s story in with a real historical context.
The ending is more or less inevitable, even if you don’t know the original story, and Stewart’s embellishments are mostly pretty tame. A fun light read, but not really a return to the world of The Crystal Cave in anything but name (and that devotion to Morgan being a sexualised, predatory witch).