Killing Is My Business, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 25th July 2017
I’ve enjoyed the other books and stories in this series a lot, and this is no exception. Take a Raymond Chandler-esque world, and apply one robot trained as a PI who has been somewhat repurposed as an assassin. Add the complication that he runs on limited tapes of memory — 24 hours at a time, no more storage than that. Add his AI handler, Ada, who very clearly has her own agenda — one which doesn’t always align with what their creators envisioned for them.
And, in this book, add the mafia.
I started it when I couldn’t sleep, and finished it an hour and a half later, without stopping once. Adam Christopher writes crisply, precisely; there’s no dead patches where you feel like you can put the book down, because if you did, well; something interesting might happen while you aren’t looking. I love the way Christopher uses Ray’s limitations to create parts of the mystery. This isn’t just a book with a detective/assassin who happens to be a robot; the fact that Ray’s a robot is vital to the whole thing.
Raymond Chandler’s probably rolling in his grave at the comparison, given he had no great opinion of sci-fi, but I’m not going to worry too much about giving him an unquiet rest.
Caesar’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th July
Sam Kean is an entertaining pop science writer in general, and though this isn’t as perfectly up my street as The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, it’s still fascinating and very readable. It starts by reminding us that we’re breathing the same air as everyone who has ever lived — including Caesar, hence the title — and that there’s a high chance we’re breathing in some of the same molecules that bounced around their lungs. Then it goes on to talking about the foundation of Earth’s atmosphere, the power of gases and the road humans took to discovering that, and finishes with a look at how life affects its environment — of course, the changes in the composition of our atmosphere that we cause, but also how we might spot other species on other planets doing the same.
As you can see, that’s a lot of ground to cover, and Kean manages to string everything together into a pretty logical narrative. The longer chapters are leavened by interludes covering events that illustrate some part of what’s under discussion, like using hot gases to cut into a bank vault…
Overall, entertaining and interesting, especially given that Earth sciences and the study of our atmosphere has never been a great interest of mine.
Reality 36, Guy Haley
Many, many moons ago, I think this is one of the books I got free from Angry Robot when I visited them as a contest winner. But I’d been meaning to read it before that; I love the idea of cyberpunk and virtual realities, love messing around with the idea of AIs. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this too well; first off, it felt unfocused because it took so long to figure out who the protagonists are. Okay, you get Richards in the two-page prologue, but then not again until fifty pages later. Veronique might be cool, and feels at first like a potential protagonist, but it’s clearly meant to be Richards and Klein — given the book’s called a Richards & Klein investigation.
I got a little further in and wasn’t a fan of Otto at all; he’s brutal, makes homophobic jokes about rape (there’s a whole scene with him taunting someone he sent to prison about how he must’ve been raped there, seriously), resorts to torture, etc. Just… not the sort of character I enjoy spending time with. So I skimmed from that point on, and didn’t really find anything that hooked me back in. The story very obviously continues in Omega Point, but I’m not interested enough in reading it. I get that a lot of the unpleasant stuff is part of the genres Haley’s playing with, but… it’s not the good stuff about those genres.
Disappointing, especially as I came back to this to give it a second chance after enjoying The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley.
Personality, Daniel Nettle
I don’t quite see why this is part of the Oxford Landmark Science range. To me, it’s a relatively low level analysis of the factors that go into personality, much of which I’ve read elsewhere in other popular science books which aren’t so tightly focused. It’s not that it’s a bad book, or uninteresting; there are some things I didn’t know, and it’s interesting to see how Nettle explores the two sides to each of the main personality factors identified — the downside to being extroverted, for example, and the downside to ‘openness to experience’.
Still, none of it is revelatory, and he doesn’t spare much time for the criticisms of the whole idea of studying people’s personalities as if they’re a real thing you can test and measure. His conclusion is basically that of course you can, because you can obtain consistent data that falls into particular trends. I don’t think I disagree, but I’m sure there are more criticisms.
It’s an easy enough read, surprisingly light even for pop-sci.
Nova, Samuel R. Delany
I’ve meant to read this for so long, because it’s a total classic and everyone seemed to expect me to love Delany’s work. Although the writing is clever, the way some of the characters speak (verb last) just got infuriating, and I don’t think any of the characters are really there to be liked. As for the grail story narrative that’s supposed to be there, well; knowing the grail story as well as I do (clue: very well, thanks to Cardiff University’s medieval lit tutors) it didn’t really feel like a grail story. Moby Dick, perhaps; that’s a comparison that does feel apt.
There are some gorgeous bits of prose and intriguing ideas, and I did want to read it all and find out how things turned out, but… it just didn’t blow me away. Possibly the fault lies in me, since Delany is a classic SF writer; I’ve still got Babel-17 to read, and we’ll see if I like that better.
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball
Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.
At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, David Whitehouse
This book uses all kinds of insights from mineralogy and seismology to put together a picture of what the Earth’s composed of, layer by layer. Despite the author’s obvious enthusiasm, this isn’t one of my primary interests, and I did find my interest flagging at times — it seemed like some chapters were just unnecessarily dragged out and like he got off the point some of the time. Nonetheless, if this is the kind of science that enthuses you, it’s worth reading — it deals with the history of the study of our Earth as well as the straightforward facts about the composition of each layer.
The more I learn about all kinds of science, including Earth science, the happier I am. Even if it’s not my field, I’m glad I read this.
The City of Dreaming Books, Walter Moers, trans. John Brownjohn
The City of Dreaming Books is delightfully whimsical, crammed full of ideas that practically want to burst out of the pages, and it’s all about books and writing and the love of reading. There’s so much going on — so much humour, so much inventiveness — and it’s all supplemented by the illustrations. I was a little worried after reading a synopsis of one of Moers’ other books (which is apparently in the same world, though this one stands alone) that it’d be too childish, but it didn’t feel that way at all. Of course, it’s a total adventure yarn, but it’s the sort that I think should appeal to anyone who likes a bit of adventure.
There are catacombs full of books, creatures that live only far beneath the surface of the city and devote their lives to learning to recite a single author’s output, deadly books and living books, monsters made of paper… And, you know, the main character is a dinosaur (who loves books excessively and wants to be a writer), and…
It’s hard to describe all the stuff that’s going on in this book. I can only conclude by saying that I found it deliciously readable and a lot of fun.
Bloodshot, Cherie Priest
There’s a lot to love about Bloodshot. The protagonist is a flapper vampire with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who uses her skills to steal things and sort of looks out for two street urchins who’ve taken up residence in her warehouse. Her client is a blind vampire who may be able to control the weather, having been experimented on by the government, and her eventual sidekick is a crossdressing ex-Navy SEAL who looks fabulous in either male or female clothing, kicks complete ass, and is trying to find out what happened to his sister in the same sort of experiments. The interactions are delightful, and Raylene’s tone is often funny.
There are some quibbles — Raylene tends to ramble, and on a second read it becomes obvious how long it takes for the plot to get off the ground. I’m still immensely fond of the characters and all the ass they kick, despite being tiny and obsessive-compulsive (Raylene), in high heels and a glittery thong part of the time, including during action scenes (Adrian) and blind (Ian). They make for a great team. Raylene’s a little too trigger happy — or rather, I guess, fang-happy; she’s definitely morally ambiguous, for all that I totally rooted for her throughout.
It might possibly work better as a TV show or movie, in that Raylene’s inner monologue is part of what slows things up. Not that I can imagine anyone making something of this and not utterly butchering it in some way — what charms about it is partly that these characters would rarely be allowed to shine in quite this way in mainstream fiction, and it’s possible in another context Adrian would be used as comic relief in some way. (Which he isn’t, which is great.)
Still very fun, but also definitely still flawed on a reread.
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie
Ancillary Sword has a smaller scale than Ancillary Justice, which actually continues into book three. It’s not that the wider events are forgotten, but it narrows down to the narrow section of space Breq can protect, her ship, and Athoek Station. As with the first book, I liked this more on the second reading — probably because, yes, I did know what to expect, so I could appreciate it better, but also because on reflection I like that Leckie doesn’t try to tackle the huge sweep of events. Instead, she focuses in on Breq and those around her, and keeps it manageable in plot and for the reader to appreciate.
There was less of Seivarden in this book than I remembered, and actually I think I’d have liked to see more of Seivarden. She’s got learning to do, but all the same, I’ve come to appreciate the character. She’s far from perfect, and she’s not even an anti-hero — she’s just a flawed person. But nonetheless, she grows and develops.
Sometimes Breq is a little too… far-seeing. There are things she suspects in this book that only really become obvious in the third book. In retrospect, I enjoy the way things come together, but the first time it felt like Breq was a little too good. But then, of course, she’s not human. She’s an ancillary, and so she thinks differently. I suppose that’s part of what we’re being shown here too.
So, yes, conclusion continues to be: well worth the reread, and definitely as good as or better than I remembered it.