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The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
The Quantum Thief

Jvstin, March 19, 2011

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
"Time is what we make of it; relative, absolute, finite, infinite. I choose to let this moment last forever so that when I toil to clean your sewers and protect you from phoboi and carry your city on my back - I can remember what it is like to have such friends."
--Christian Unruh at his carpe diem party.
Hannu Rajaniemi and his debut novel The Quantum Thief are something I've heard about for a while, mainly through the agency of the Coode Street Podcast, the enthusiasm Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe have for this novel infectious. I was extremely fortunate to get a chance at reading an ARC of the book.
A welcome letter from editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden evokes Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge and Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber in trying to introduce the book. Given my high regard for all three gentlemen, you might imagine that this has colored my perceptions of the book, and you would be right. Mr. Rajaniemi has a day job running a think tank based on AI and advanced mathematics, and has a doctorate in String Theory.
It should surprise no one, then, that the world of the Quantum Thief is a high concept, high jargon post-Singularity world.
Jean Le Flambeur, an imprisoned thief undergoing an endless series of rounds of Prisoner's Dilemma, is rescued by Mieli, an agent of a mysterious post-Singularity being. From there, the pair travel to Mars to find one of Le Flambeur's most prized and valuable possessions: His lost memory.
In the meantime, Isidore Beautrelet, citizen of the Oubilette, the moving city of Mars, has a tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, and his efforts at playing detective have brought him to the attention of one of the most powerful men on Mars. Unruh is a man who is worried about the announced arrival of a master thief. A thief named Jean Le Flambeur.
Mix in post-Singularity technology and a plot that barely pauses for breath, and blend on "high", and you will get The Quantum Thief. Rajaniemi is being touted as the Next Big Thing in science fiction (the back cover of this ARC calls it "The strongest SF debut in years") , and judging from this first book, he is making a very good, but not perfect, start.
Post-Singularity worlds and books are very tricky things. Be it Charles Stross, Walter Jon Williams, Vernor Vinge, John C. Wright, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Greg Egan, Karl Schroeder or Hannu Rajaniemi, making a book that effectively captures the world that is beyond by definition an indescribable point in technology and history is difficult, at best. And worse, there is the death problem. When you have a world where death's sting strikes with far less strength, how do you generate stakes and conflicts that actually mean something? In a world where backups of people or other technologies make death far less fearsome, how do you deal with that lack of a final threat to a character's sovereignty and agency?
In the book, Rajaniemi deals with the Post-Singularity problem by making no compromises, and precious little infodumping. He chucks the reader into the deep-end and expects them to sink or swim, trusting them to get it, or not. I think he is only partially successful in this approach. Lots of jargon and terms get tossed around, and it requires an attentive and active reader to really make good headway. And I would not dream that any reader who hasn't read at least one or two novels by the gentlemen I listed earlier should even try to tackle this book. Rajaniemi loves his technology and science, although I wonder if he realizes that not every reader who comes across references to, say, WIMPS in the text are going to realize he is talking about Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, in current day physics a proposed component in of dark matter. A glossary at the back of this book would have been extremely useful.
As far as the death problem, Rajaniemi deals with this by simply allowing for a stratification of society and its individuals. In the Oubilette, there is no immortality, Time is a currency and when your time is up, if you are a citizen, you spend a period as a servant class. (Visitors merely are forced to leave). So, the threat of death, real death, still exists in the post-Singularity universe he has created.
For all of the technology and jargon, there is an almost surprising amount of character focus in the book. The evolving interactions between Le Flambeur, Mieli, her ship and the characters they meet on Mars were touching, and real. And Perhonen, Mieli's ship, is a distinct character in her own right. With two strong female characters flanking Jean, Rajaniemi easily passes the Bechdel test.
I have to admit, on a personal note, that perhaps Mr. Hayden's letter made me see the references, and perhaps they aren't even there, but I was vastly amused that Le Flambeur's outfit, once he has a chance to dress properly, are the black and silver colors of Prince Corwin of Amber. He, too, was a character who did not know all that he was, and was in a sense imprisoned, too...And that nine specific individuals play a large part in Le Flambeur's scheme.
There are two sequels planned, and while the book's narrative does end at a closing point for the main characters, there is a coda of sorts that suggests the source and vector of conflict for the next book. As I have said above, this high octane post-singularity fiction is not 100% successful, but I suppose the ultimate question is: Do I want to read more of Flambeur, Mieli, and beyond?
The answer to that is a resounding yes. Welcome, Mr. Rajaniemi, to the science fiction pool. I hope you will stay a while and write some more interesting books set in this world. But come next book, please give us poor pre-Singularity intelligences a glossary. Please?
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God's War by Kameron Hurley
God's War

Jvstin, February 10, 2011

“Bugs, Blood and Brutal Women. All the best things in life.”
So was signed my copy of God’s War, by debut novelist Kameron Hurley. I entered an online contest to win a copy of the novel, now out, and was delighted that the author had taken the time to personalize it in this way. It was a good omen to start the book off.
God’s War is set during a perpetual war on Umayma, a distant planet in an indistinctly far future where two polities, each dominated by a rival descendant sect of Islam (never mentioned directly as the ur-religion). God’s War is the story of Nyx. Once upon a time, she was a Bel Dame, a government agent used to stop deserters, lethally if necessary. She lost that position on a bad job, and now scrapes together a living as a bounty hunter, having cobbled together a team of misfits to help her with her work. Primary and most important amongst these is the other main viewpoint character, Rhys. Rhys is a refugee from Chenja, the nation on the other side of the eternal war with Nyx’s Nasheen.
This hardscrabble existence for Nyx and her team gets a kick in the pants when the Queen of Nasheen makes an offer Nyx can’t refuse—find a missing person, and a rare one at that: a visitor from another planet who has slipped the custody of her Nasheen hosts. A person who might have the high technology that Nasheen or Chenja could use to end the perpetual conflict for good. And so starts a multi-sided scramble to find the missing offworlder…
The strong points of God’s War are three: world building, the characters and descriptive, tight prose that invokes and evokes her wonderfully visualized world.

World building: Interesting and real-feeling descendant forms of Islam, a dry and hostile planet, the strange and wondrous bugpunk technology and biotechnology. The lack of exposition may turn off some. There is plenty of world building, but a relative lack of anything resembling infodumping, and a lot of things are taken as is, with the bug-dominated “Bugpunk” technology being first and foremost. A lot of it is “handwavium” of the first order, and Hurley does not give us any real chance to get up to speed on it. It’s been a while since a novel truly has chucked me in the deep end. However, I found the experience invigorating and satisfying once I started to puzzle things out. Hurley has a strong and vivid imagination.
Characters :
Well drawn and interestingly contrasted characters ranging from Nyxnissa, Bel Dame turned bounty hunter, to Rhys the foreign magician, the rest of her crew, and her opposition. Nyx doesn’t seem to know what she wants in life beyond her next piece of bread, but rather than vacillating or doing nothing, she is an active character, brawling, brutal, and bloody as she carves her way through the world. The other characters, too, have lesser well defined but still concrete needs and agendas, some of which are only revealed in flashback after we have seen them in action for a while. This slight non linearity forces the reader to pay attention.

Prose: Hurley writes to a well constructed third person viewpoint that mainly focuses on Nyx and her doings. The times where we break away from her or Rhys feel a little off to me, though, an almost unwelcome variation on the theme. Despite this, the alien natures of Umayama and the humans that inhabit it and their cultures are exceedingly well done. You can feel the heat, taste the sweat of the fighters in the gyms, smell the blood of vicious battle.
The style of the book, combined with the technology, gave me a Vandermeer New Weirdesque feel to God’s War, with the proviso that this is science fiction, even if Rhys is called a magician and just how things like his talent and those of the shapeshifters are not really explained.
This book is not for the squeamish. Right in the first chapter, Nyx talks about a hysterectomy, and the book does not soften from there. The protagonist gets tortured. People die. Fights and conflicts are messy, inconclusive, and exceedingly violent. Its all very vividly described but fortunately not to the level of “torture porn”
Blood, Bugs and Brutal Women. It says it all.
I, for one, am looking forward to the next Nyx novel, and what else Hurley is capable of beyond her vision of life on Umayama.
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Hard Magic by Laura Anne Gilman
Hard Magic

Jvstin, January 23, 2011

I've mentioned before in previous reviews of mine that Urban fantasy is a genre that I find hit or miss. Certainly its popular, authors are doing well cranking them up, but many urban fantasy novels feel like either romance novels with not well worked out paranormal elements, or feel like they are bandwagoners trying to get in on a hot sub-genre. And, I generally like my landscapes more fantastic and bigger. But I am willing to dip into the sub-genre now and again, if for no other reason than to keep abreast of how it is evolving.

Laura Anne Gilman is an author whose work I have not read before, but she has popped up in mentions of blog posts and social media by authors I have varying levels of contact and friendship with. So, I was delighted to enter and win a contest for a copy (signed as it turns out) of one of her books: Hard Magic

Hard Magic starts a new novel in her "Cosa Nostradamus" universe. Seven books in, there is not a lot of explanation of how the universe works, but clues in the book provided by good writing from Gilman allowed me to piece together that Hard Magic and its previous novels are set in a modern-day urban fantasy universe where magicians, and nonhuman races ("fatae") secretly live in a world ignorant of their presence. A major organized faction of practitioners (Talents), called the Council, try to organize the magical community. Opposing them are lonejacks, who are talents who try and make their own, anarchic way in keeping their powers secret and doing the business of making a living.

Bonnie Torres, a character who had appeared as a minor character in previous Cosa Nostradamus books, gets center stage in Hard Magic. With a Council patron, and a lonejack sort of independence, she nicely encapsulates the dichotomy between these factions as she tries to make a living in NYC.

When Bonnie gets a call to attend a job interview she never applied for, she is soon sucked into PUPI--Private Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations. She joins a number of other misfit Talents similarly recruited, and together learn to harness their powers for magical forensics.

Oh, and of course, they DO get a case, investigate the strange suicide of a prominent pair of Council members that may very well be something more than a suicide. And in the process, Bonnie and her new friends stir up a number of very dangerous hornets nests in the process...

As an expatriate New Yorker, I felt like a slice of home reading this book, as, with the exception of a few teleports to Boston and Chicago, the entirety of the book takes place in New York City. From jokes about the GWB to pumpernickel bagels, Gilman brings forth the spirit of New York. Bonnie is clearly not a native, and we get a sense of her trying to understand the city, like a cat, has decided to adopt her. Unlike some urban fantasy that I have read, the setting is in harmony with the fantastic elements and they work together (much like, say, Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron).

The central mystery is a fair one by the standards of the universe. More than the mystery, though, the writing and the text show that Gilman is even more interested in exploring the characters. While we only follow Bonnie's point of view and her mind, Gilman does allow us to slowly reveal aspects of her employers and fellow employees. By the end of the book, we have a good handle not only on Bonnie but also her evolving relationships with PUPI, and her mentor J as well.

The advantage for Gilman to start a new series within her Cosa Nostradamus universe is that it provides a new entry point for people wanting to explore a new urban fantasy universe. If you are looking to try some urban fantasy, or more especially if you are a urban fantasy junkie, I recommend you give Bonnie Torres and the PUPI investigators a try.
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Hell and Earth, Volume 2: The Stratford Man (Promethean Age Novels)
Hell and Earth, Volume 2: The Stratford Man (Promethean Age Novels)

Jvstin, January 8, 2011

William Shakespeare is free from Hell thanks to the love of their mutual lives, the now-Changeling Christopher Marlowe. Kit has lost much, including his name, and William's palsy is a slow death sentence, but both figures, in Faerie and on Earth, cannot rest on their laurels. Elizabeth is dying, and there are those who wish to use her death and the life of her successor to change not only the destiny of England, but the destiny of all realms.

For William Shakespeare and, even more so, Kit Marlowe is more powerful than he knows, and his untapped power, if harnessed properly, could be used to topple more than James I and the Mebd. Much, much more. The Nature of God itself is up for grabs, if that power is used properly...

The narrative of Hell and Earth is the second half of the "play" that begins in Ink and Steel and Elizabeth Bear wastes no time in plunging us back into her 16th century world. The shadowy plots and plans of the Prometheans who oppose Kit and Will slowly reveal themselves, and their plans are both monstrous and breathtaking indeed. Throw in an audacious and unapologetic attempt to coil in everything from the date of Elizabeth's death to the Guy Fawkes plot to the writing of the King James Bible, and I have found that Hell and Earth, along with Ink and Steel functions as much as a secret history as well as a historical fictional fantasy. In an afterword, Bear mentions that Shakespeare and Marlowe did this very same thing in their own plays, cutting history to suit a narrative end. She makes no apologies.

And so shouldn't the reader. Even beyond Faerie and Hell, Hell and Earth shows an Elizabethan England that is in a fictionalized past, and in this second volume, I started to really grok that in a way that I didn't really internalize in the first volume, Ink and Steel. Treat the books in the same way one might treat Henry V, and

The writing is crisp, vital, and has the ring of veracity. Well drawn characters that never feel like they are 21st century individuals wearing period garb, Bear populates her narrative with complex and conflicted people who are true to their life and times.

Again, though, don't start here. Start with Ink and Steel and immerse yourself in Bear's vision of 16th century England seen through two of its greatest playwrights, plus the nature of God, secret conspiracies,two Queens, Hell, and the Faerie realms.

Highly recommended.
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Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective by Richard J. Gott
Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective

Jvstin, December 26, 2010

How big is the universe and the things that are in it? You can throw around all sorts of numbers. 93 million miles is the distance to the Sun. Jupiter has a diameter of 142,800 kilometers. Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away. It is 2 million light years to the Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest object visible with the naked eye.

But what does all that really mean? How do you wrap your way around those sizes and compare them to more familiar sizes and distances? J Richard Gott and Robert J Vanderbei, in National Geographic's Sizing Up the Universe, have set themselves this tall order--explain to the reader just how big things are, and tie it to the every day so that readers can get a handle around it. Also add in a gorgeous visual guide to the heavens, from star charts to pictures ranging from Neil Armstrong to the Cosmic Microwave Background, and you have Sizing Up the Universe.

The book starts off with apparent sizes of objects in the sky, starting with the Moon and moving its way upward. While I have seen many books explain size in a more conventional manner (and the book later does delve into the real size of objects), the authors obvious interest in astronomy and backyard sky viewing give them a perspective as to the apparent size of stellar objects that was illuminating even to a astronomy enthusiast like myself. I had no idea, for example, that the apparent size of the small dim smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy is actually much, much larger than that.

The book then launches itself into viewing the night skies, as a way to bridge the previous section with the subsequent ones, and again showing the astronomical interest of the authors. The charts in this book can be used to find objects in the sky in all four seasons.

Next, the book concerns itself with the distances and sizes of objects, and goes through the routine and familiar (to me) story of Eratosthenes, who discovered (roughly) the size of the Earth, and the efforts throughout history to find the distance to and sizes of the Moon, and the Sun. The authors then use those as scales to map distances all the way to the edge of the Universe. A centerpiece of the book is a gate-fold four page logarithmic size chart of the distances from the Earth that you may have seen on the internet.

Finally, in the tradition of the "Powers of Ten", the book uses a 1:1 size picture of Buzz Aldrin's footprint on the moon, and then proceeds to pictorially move up to larger and larger scales, until the entire universe is encompassed.

Amazing pictures, comprehensive, intelligently written but not written down to the viewer, Sizing Up the Universe is eminently designed for those teenagers and adults who have ever looked at the sky and wondered just how big and how far away the stars and planets *really* are.

Highly Recommended.
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