June 2008 Archives

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

| | Comments (0)

Apocalyptic horror books don't get much better than this. I Am Legend is a story of Richard Neville, the last human on earth, surrounded by monsters. Not zombies, this time, but vampires: blood-thirsty beasts seeking Neville's life. He has a house turned into a fortress, and during days he goes around driving stakes through the creatures - just to find new ones at his door come evening.

It's an exciting story that wastes no space: the book is just 160 pages or so. It's full on action (and research, as Neville tries to figure out what is was that turned everybody else to a vampire), armed with a clever philosophical twist: if you're the only living person in a world of vampires, then who actually is the monster and deviant? Who is normal? Excellent stuff, really, this is a true classic.

What is really curious is why on earth this wasn't translated in Finnish before? My friend got a good catch here with his small independent publishing house, especially with the new major movie too. The book won the 2008 T√§htivaeltaja award for the best science fiction book published in Finnish, and for a good reason. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ I Am Legend (S.F. Masterworks) at Amazon.co.uk ]I Am Legend at LibraryThing ]

Some books have great plots. This one doesn't. It takes quite a while to get really going and even then it's not very exciting. For a while I was wondering why on earth did this book win the Nebula for best novel. Well, I did realize that in the end. This isn't a book with a great plot, but this is a book with interesting characters and thought-provoking material to chew on; thus, it certainly makes for a good science fiction book.

Actually, the publisher doesn't label the book as science fiction (Elizabeth Moon is very much a science fiction author, though). That's good, because the science fiction elements aren't that strong, just some highly advanced technology on the background. It would be unfortunate to have someone skip reading this book just because it's science fiction. After all, genre fans will read the book anyway, because of the author and the Nebula.

So anyway: The Speed of Dark is the story of Lou Arrendale, a high-functional autist who has managed to do pretty well in his life. He has an interesting job, doing pattern analysis which is what he does best. He has friends and hobbies and his life seems to be good in all ways. His autism does cause him some trouble adjusting, but he can live with that.

Of course, something comes up and throws him off balance. Two things, actually. His car is assaulted: someone slashes his tires. Then, a new boss at his workplace doesn't seem to like the autist department and wants to get rid of it - with some help from brand-new experimental medical technology that promises to cure autism altogether.

Things get messy, as you can guess. It comes down to a simple, yet very difficult question: Lou must decide whether he wants to stay as he is or submit to the operation that will change him. Is being normal worth the risk? Is being normal something worth pursuing? Are normal people normal? What is this normal thing everybody's talking about anyway?

It's a good book, and the way it's told from Lou's autistic perspective makes it quite an experience. Moon manages to avoid both romanticizing and demonizing autism. Perhaps she rubs in a tad too much the fact that normal people don't generally behave like the autists are told they should to behave to be normal, but I'm willing to forgive that. Speed of Dark certainly is full of material to make you think. [ Speed of Dark at Amazon.co.uk ]The Speed of Dark at LibraryThing ]

Other blogs writing about the book:
Catholic Sensibility: On My Bookshelf: The Speed of Dark
Nexus Torch Archive: The Speed of Dark and Mundane SF

Signs of Life is a beautiful book. The plot is of little importance, but the characters and the ambiance are brilliant. Actually, come to think of it, it reminds me of some of Steve Erickson's work - he too writes books that are almost incomprehensible, but still capture the reader. M. John Harrison is just even more magical; his description of the worn and used side of Britain is wonderful.

Signs of Life is about three people. Mick Rose is a courier, I suppose, who delivers medical supplies and takes care of toxic waste. He meets Isobel at an airport; she's working in the cafe there. They fall in love. That's what Mick wants: Isobel's love. Isobel wants to fly. Then there's Choe, Mick's immature and capricious business partner, bent on self-destruction. I guess he wants to be a real gangster.

All the characters want something and the book pretty much revolves around how they can't get what they want. It's really fascinating, in a rather morbid way. It certainly reminds me of The Course of the Heart - no wonder the two novels have been published as one book, Anima. They fit together well. Both are definitely worth reading. Oh, and Signs of Life is often marketed as science fiction. That's a bit of a silly label, as the book has very little science fiction in it. Don't let that keep you from reading the book. (Review based on the Finnish translation) [ Anima: Signs of Life/Course of the Heart (Gollancz S.F.) at Amazon.co.uk ]Signs of Life at LibraryThing ]

Classic economics is based on the expectation that people behave rationally and with their best interests in mind. From a common sense approach this seems like an odd expectation, as people generally don't seem to act rationally. Professor Ariely agrees and continues to say that the irrationality of people is actually highly predictable.

This book goes through plenty of examples, demonstrated by experiments that prove the point. Ariely shows how free is more attractive than very cheap, how more expensive medicine works better than a cheap pill, how things you own seem a lot more attractive to you and so on - the predictable irrationality becomes clear.

The result is an interesting book that offers lots of entertaining insights to human psychology. If you're trying to sell something, this book will give you tools to push your customers to paying higher prices for the products you want them to buy. Then again, if those customers read this book, they'll learn to see through their irrationality and make at least slightly more rational decisions.

Behavioral economics - as Ariely's field is called - is rather interesting, and this was an educational and interesting book. [ Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions at Amazon.co.uk ]Predictably Irrational at Amazon.co.uk ]

Fritz Leiber is a key figure in the field of swords and sorcery literature. The true master of the genre may be Robert Howard, but it was Leiber who gave it the name in 1961. Leiber's most important legacy is the adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, two unlikely heroes struggling in the city of Lankhmar. Leiber wrote the first story of the two in 1939 and his last major work in 1991 finally wrapped it up.

This collection shows the origins fo the couple. Snow Women tells how Fafhrd left his home in the far north, fighting against other warriors of his tribe and the ice-cold magic of the northern women, to flee to southern civilization of Lankhmar. In The Unholy Grail Mouse, the apprentice of a hedge wizard, becomes the Gray Mouser and escapes to Lankhmar after some dabbling in the black arts. Finally, the award-winning Ill Met in Lankhmar describes how the two meet and how their career of thievery and killing begins in the city of Lankhmar.

This is no high literature, but what's wrong with good entertainment? Leiber's stories are entertaining, and especially the last one is a wonderful story of swords and sorcery, full of fantasy cliches (excused, because Leiber came up with quite a few of those, I believe) and action. The stories are funny, too, as Leiber doesn't take his writing too seriously.

Considering the influence these stories have had in other writers, I'd say reading Leiber is a must for anybody who likes sword and sorcery stories and this collection is definitely the best place to start, it's a good introduction to Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Lankhmar: Swords and Deviltry: 1 at Amazon.co.uk ]Swords and Deviltry at LibraryThing ]

The 12th edition of Bookworms Carnival is out now. I participated in the carnival with my entry on Johanna Sinisalo's Troll.

Charles Stross: Iron Sunrise

| | Comments (0)

Iron Sunrise is an exciting space opera thriller, filled with wonders of the post-singularity world and furnished with a clever plot with plenty of twists. It's fast and fun; that is, great entertainment for science fiction fans.

A planet called New Moscow is destroyed in a rather brutal manner. The surviving Muscovites aim their doomsday weapons to New Dresden, a neighbouring planet with which New Moscow had a trade conflict. Too bad the Dresdeners are actually innocent.

An angsty teenage Muscovite survivor called Wednesday happens to have some information about what really happened. An experienced warblogger Frank is looking into the matters. The diplomatic black osp forces from Earth are getting involved, and of course, there's the god-like artifical intelligence Eschaton, who doesn't like trouble in it's light-cone.

No wonder the things get interesting. The diplomat from Earth is, of course, Rachel Mansour, already familiar from Singularity Sky, set in the same world. The books share common background and Iron Sunrise refers to the events in Singularity Sky, but the books are essentially independent.

For the fans of high-tech science fiction and exciting techno thrillers, this is a fun ride. [ Iron Sunrise at Amazon.co.uk ]Iron Sunrise at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Clubbing

| | Comments (0)

From Booking Through Thursday:

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (ot, if you haven't been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?

Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

Hmh, my first association from the title of this weeks BTT was clubbing in the sense of beating someone with a club. I wonder what that says about me?

So no, I haven't been in book clubs. To me, reading tends to be very solitary activity. I very rarely discuss books with anybody more than "hey, book X is good, check it out". I read, write a review, move on. I used to visit a Finnish online forum focused on books, but in the end that didn't work out.

On that forum, we did have a small book club, where we voted for the book to read. Seemed like a fairly good method, but it's pretty hard to choose a book that pleases everyone. We chose Tristram Shandy, but I think the discussion fizzled soon. Also, reading in the same pace with others sounds like a pain, especially as my reading time varies a lot depending on my other duties (right now I'm busy with all sorts of projects and can't read as much as I want, for example).

I'd say I'm happier without book clubs.

This collection includes the 12 original Cosmicomics, but adds to that the another 12 stories Calvino wrote later (between 1965 when the original was published and 1984). Those have been published in various compilations, but as far as I can tell, this collection contains all Cosmicomics. Unfortunately, it seems the collection hasn't been translated in English.

It's a pity. The original Cosmicomics are available in English, and those are a wonderful compilation of absurd science fiction stories. Calvino takes a scientific fact (some of those facts are actually false these days, but that doesn't matter) and weaves a story around it. The stories always feature the ubiquitous Qwfwq, who has apparently been around since the dawn of time (and actually, before that - it was apparently his doing that the time itself began), involved in various absurdities - like recalling his relationship with this girl when the colours first arrived, or telling about how they used to visit the moon when it was much closer than it is these days.

The 12 new stories continue describing the antics of Qwfwq, though one of the stories stands out as it has absolutely nothing to do with Qwfwq and it doesn't fit in the style of Cosmicomics - it's not a bad story, but just quite unlike the others. If you enjoyed the original Cosmicomics, there's no reason why you wouldn't enjoy these new stories.

In general the Cosmicomics stories are fun, insightful, hilarious, tedious - some are clearly better and very, very entertaining, some are less interesting. I suppose absurdity is a tough art, and if a story misses a step and doesn't really connect with the reader, there's little hope. Fortunately you can then just skip to the next story and that's likely better - there are several very good stories in the collection. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Cosmicomics (Harbrace Paperbound Library) at Amazon.co.uk ]Tutte le cosmicomiche at LibraryThing ]

This book is Temeraire in UK and His Majesty's Dragon in US.

Will Laurence, a captain in the English Navy, captures a French frigate and finds a dragon egg in the hold. A precious prize, but unfortunately it's ready to hatch and Laurence is weeks from the closest port. When a dragon hatches, it needs to be harnessed by its future master, and that person is the only one the dragon will accept.

The officers draw lots over who will harness the dragon, because it's a strong commitment that will stop a career in Navy, prevent life in society and cancel any dreams of proper marriage. Of course, it's Will who ends up as the master of Temeraire the dragon. He has to kiss his Navy career goodbye and join the Air Corps, full of curious characters and unusual habits.

The Napoleonic Wars serve an ideal background for this novel. This is perfect entertainment: light and quick to read, but also funny, smart and touching. The main characters in the book are particularly charming. Will Laurence is an English officer and a gentleman, stiff and clinging to his formalities and upper-class manners. Temeraire is an intelligent, curious and quirky, a wonderful character that many readers will love in with.

This is a first book of series and plenty of time is spent in the boot camp, when Will and Temeraire learn the rules of aerial combat. The book skirts around the worst military training cliches, but at times the plot is a bit predictable. I don't mind, because there are plenty of interesting twists and the story is good. In the end, there's some actual fighting action, too.

I've already ordered the second book in the series, and that's rare - but I haven't been able to get it from BookMooch (part three is already waiting), and I must have it. [ Temeraire (Temeraire 1) [a.k.a. His Majesty's Dragon] at Amazon.co.uk ]Temeraire at LibraryThing ]

Other blogs writing about the book:
Finding Wonderland: Temeraire by Naomi Novik
Deliciously Clean Reads: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

This is another part in the Manifold trilogy. Time is indeed about time, from this day to the great cooling in the end of all time. The main character is once again Reid Malenfant, with his one-man mission to take humanity to the stars to avoid the looming end of the world.

There's an interesting twist to the story, though: Malenfant gets a message from the future. And what happens, when superintelligent children start to appear? It is all very interesting, at least most of the time. The book is full of heavy physics to confuse the reader, so it's not for the faint of heart. [ Manifold: Time at Amazon.co.uk ]Manifold: Time at LibraryThing ]

BTT: Trends

| | Comments (0)

From Booking Through Thursday:

Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

Science fiction is a constant that holds. As long as new science fiction books come in, I'll keep on reading them. I used to devour all fantasy books I found, then I kind of got bored, or the massive series turned me off. Now I've been returning to fantasy, reading more of the new fantasy novels I've found which are often, actually, quite good.

I've enjoyed more non-fiction than before, and a wider range of subjects too. Whether I like to read challenging or easy, light or dark, funny or serious, is a short-term thing, not something that goes in long-term trends.

Douglas Coupland is the voice of Generation X - or that's at least his reputation. Life After God continues exploring the life of that generation, a generation raised without religion. The book consists of eight short stories, told in fragmentary paragraphs decorated with Coupland's little drawings.

The stories are not connected, but circle around the same spiritual and emotional questions. What is the meaning of life, what to believe in when there's nothing to believe in anymore, what is love, what is death, what is being human? These are big questions and obviously Coupland doesn't give answers - he just offers some interesting points of view.

I'm not part of the generation Coupland writes about - perhaps someone born in the 1960's will find this book more important. However, many of the topics are so general, so commonly human that everyone should find something from Coupland's stories. Life After God is casual philosophy, and a rather pleasant little book despite all its sadness. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Life After God at Amazon.co.uk ]Life After God at LibraryThing ]

Other blogs writing about this book:
PDX Writer Daily: From the Library: Douglas Coupland's "Life After God"
Reading Notes: Review: Life After God
Hans Is Great: Life After God

The science magazine New Scientist features Last Word, a weekly where readers can send questions about the science of everyday life. The answers are collected from other readers, who include experts in many different fields. Some of the more interesting questions are collected in this little book.

The questions vary from mundane to quite obscure, and all are answered thoroughly and with expertise. Most of the topics are from everyday life, but others are stranger. How to make sure your body is fossilized after you die? Well, read this book and you'll know.

This is a fun little book, full of entertaining science. Some answers are useful, others are less so, but all are rather delightful and often feature good sense of humour. Anyone with a healthy curiosity and appreciation for science will enjoy this book. (Review based on the Finnish translation.) [ Does Anything Eat Wasps?: And 101 Other Questions (New Scientist) at Amazon.co.uk ]Does Anything Eat Wasps? at LibraryThing ]