Monday, February 27, 2017

More of the Same

I blasted through the Everness series, a YA parallel worlds saga by Ian McDonald. McDonald has always written good stuff. Apparently this is his 1st YA effort. The books are "Planesrunner", 2011, 269 pages; "Be My Enemy", 2012, 268 pages; and "Empress of the Sun", 2014, 288 pages. Hmmm, these books are no longer on the Kobo website for me to link to - whut hoppen?

These are definitely YA books. The main protagonist is a 14 YO London young male of Indian ancestry. He is a math, physics, and computer genius, and completes his father's work on the device that will allow easy exploration of all 10^80 alternate Earths, rather than just the 10 parallel Earths currently known.

The central cast of characters is the 5 person crew of a freight airship from Earth 3 - an earth with coal, electricity, carbon nanotubes, and 200 meter long airships, but no oil and plastic. So kind of a steampunkish feel. The characters are all quirky. Kind of reminded me of "The Expanse". The crew of a small ship makes for a manageable number of characters with quirks and backstories, I guess.

The plots move quickly. A few twists seem arbitrary, but, that must be the price you have to pay for an airship duel. McDonald comes up with very interesting alternate histories for the parallel earths, and seemed to be just getting warmed up. At the end of the 3rd book, we've taken care of the local crises but still have the overarching bad guys (The Order) to be dealt with. McDonald could probably crank out 1 of these stories every year or so without breaking a sweat.

Bonus points for having a Tarot-like deck of cards as part of the plot. The origin of the deck is unknown, and it is a dynamic deck, with cards being created and removed by its keeper, the 13 YO female main protagonist and (puppy) love interest. Some good card names:

  • The Cockle-child
  • Swannhilde and Swannhamme
  • The Winter Watcher
  • The Traveller Hasteth in the Evening
  • Season of the Wolf
  • Yubileo
  • Two Bad Cats
  • Lone Tree Hill
  • The Sun Empress
Here's another post where I talk about my love of cards. I probably could use to find a card game.

I'm down to 21 unread books in my iPad. I may be forced to read something worthwhile before too long. Oops.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Old Acquaintances

After reading the Walter Jon Williams stories, I decided to read the rest of the books I had in my iPad that were by old, familiar authors.

1st up, "Beautiful Blood", by Lucius Shepard, 2014, 296 pages. Shepard's novel "Green Eyes", 1984, a tale of recombinant DNA zombies who become avatars of voodoo gods, was one of novels of the Ace Specials Series 3 which included "Neuromancer" by William Gibson and early novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, Michael Swanwick, Howard Waldrop, and Jack McDevitt, and was a great, over-the-top story. His mid-to-late-80s short stories set in near-future US wars in Central America were haunting, and his short story "A Spanish Lesson", which I read in an early Year's Best, was like a moral sledgehammer to the forehead.

This novel is set in world of the Dragon Griaule, which also goes back to 1984 for Shepard. A multi-mile long sleeping dragon forms the infrastructure for several cities and kingdoms. It's kind of an odd story - scientist becomes drug dealer and criminal entrepreneur - somewhat reminiscent of Walter White and "Breaking Bad". It is an interesting read, not sure what the point was. It may have been Shepard's last publication before he died in 2014 at age 70.

Next up, "Coming Home", by Jack McDevitt, 2014, 386 pages. I think it's been years since I have read McDevitt. His stories commonly contain astroarcheology. The idea that as we explore other solar systems we are probably more likely to encounter ruins of dead civilizations rather than living civilizations is not at all unreasonable.

I think this is my last McDevitt though. It is set 9000 years in the future - but the characters have iced tea and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. They get most of their information from TV talk shows. And at one point "He reached for a pad, wrote on it, and handed the sheet to me.". It kept reminding me of the old TV show "Cannon" - a detective who is actually more interested in being a low level gourmand.

The characters are mostly obsessed with finding a trove of artifacts from the Golden Age - 1960&70s NASA. Really? 9000 years in the future, and that's their obsession? Apparently this is a universe that never developed any exponential technologies. In 9000 years mankind has spread to only ~200 worlds - pretty disappointing. And most of the worlds seem like the 1980s, but with spaceships and flying cars. At least there are female characters in leading roles, so it's not too misogynistic.

Plus, early on, I was annoyed that the alliance of planets was The Confederacy, and its president's last name was Davis. I have read too many of David Brin's rants about the ongoing US Civil War to not pick up on this. The Google and I check McDevitt out: he lives in Georgia, and is now 81 YO. So, I think I will leave him to his peanut butter sammiches and "Fox and Friends" and spend my reading time elsewhere.

Finally, I read "The Medusa Chronicles", by Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds, 2016, 416 pages. This is a sequel to Arthur C. Clarke's 1971 novella "A Meeting With Medusa", which features the discovery of large lifeforms in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. This is definitely some decent hard science fiction. We have uplifted chimps, which I liked so much in David Brin's Uplift series, and I am surprised we do not see more of. We have the rise of intelligent machines. We have a descent to the center of Jupiter, where things get really weird. We have great events happening over an 800 year timespan. After the goofiness of the McDevitt, it was a relief to get a future that seemed ... futuristic, at least a little.

While I was reading that, a delivery showed up: "Norse Mythology", by Neil Gaiman, 2017, 295 pages, hardcover, that my son ordered for me. Thanks son! I think that is great that Gaiman did this. I have always loved these stories, and this new book will expose them to many millions of new readers.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the book itself, but Gaiman added some details and dialogue and in general created a good narrative flow through the stories. The very end seemed to be a little off, but perhaps Gaiman's version is more in keeping with the eddas. Note, I would also recommend the book "Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths", about the 12th century guy who 1st captured these tales, which I blogged about here.

This also reminded me, when my granddaughter, now 6, had just turned 3, I bought her a copy of my favorite picture book of Norse mythology: "D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths".

My grandson will turn 3 this summer, I know what he's getting for his birthday!

Friday, February 17, 2017

5 and a New Tag

Well, the Evil Orange One is about as bad as I expected. Still avoiding reality.

I have been moderately enjoying the blog of Walter Jon Williams. I have read most of his stuff going back 30 years. So I read a novella and a novel in his Praxis series. This series is space opera, with a highly feudal galactic empire undergoing turmoil after the last member of its original dominant species dies. The novella is "Investments", 2012, 110 pages; the novel is "Impersonations", 2016, 254 pages. Both of them are kind of detective stories, with the protagonist trying to uncover fraud and/or embezzlement. They both move along pretty well, but this series is not my favorite of WJW's work.

Then, as promised, I read "Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction", 209 pages. Holy post-scarcity-utopia, Batman, this eBook was free! This eBook came about after Arizona State University put out a call for stories in the new genre of Climate Fiction. They received 743 submissions from 67 countries. The 12 stories judged best were placed in this volume. The stories are all by authors I don't remember having read before. There is a foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson, and an afterword which is an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi.

The 1st story was selected as the best overall, and it is the most positive of the stories, with ultra-innovative solutions to climate crisis induced problems. The rest of the stories tended to be pretty depressing: the Pacific Northwest on fire; the last holdouts abandon Venice; and several set in Malaysia or Indonesia featuring islands sinking underwater. It is a fairly quick read, I would recommend that you take the hit and read it.

Then I read "Chasing Shadows: Visions of our Coming Transparent World", edited by David Brin and Stephen W. Potts, 337 pages. I like Brin's blog, although can be a little TL;DR sometimes, and he sometimes gives off that goofy libertarian sci-fi vibe.

Most of the stories in the volume are brand new, but there are also some older ones, going back to 1962. I think a worthwhile read, as the panopticon is indeed coming, such that is good to have some guesses as to what it might entail - get to know both Big Brother and Little Brother.

I particularly enjoyed the Karl Schroeder story. He seems to be really pushing ideas about how we can use the omnipresent, geo-aware Internet of Things and blockchain technology to solve many social and economic problems. I am anxiously awaiting more of his writing - he has said he has several things in the pipe to be published.

Finally, read a short story, "Questions for a Soldier", by John Scalzi, 2011, 28 pages. This is the main character of "Old Man's War" doing a PR tour and answering questions. I guess these little add-ons to an ongoing series aren't bad, and help solidify the canon, but, I'm not sure they are worth bothering with. I didn't realize how old this story was. This was the 1st eBook I was able to obtain with Kobo bonus points. Kind of a disappointing program - I'm glad I finally found something they were allowing for redemption that I wanted to read.

Monday, February 06, 2017

4 Channels + 1 + 2

Still escaping.

Been playing with some great musicians lately and having a lot of fun. I bought a new mid-sized amp: a 50 watt solid state Marshall MG50CFX. It has 4 channels: clean, crunch, overdrive 1 & 2. All the settings on each channel are soft so when I change something and like the outcome I hit the Save button, which saves it to that channel.

I got scientific and used the decibel meter app on my on phone to set up the channel volumes. With the master volume - the only "hard" knob on the amp - set to 5, for playing rhythm, the clean and crunch channels with the guitar volume on 8 are at 97 decibels. With the guitar volume on 10, they are 100 db. With the guitar volume on 8, the 2 overdrive channels are at 100 db. So I play rhythm on the clean or crunch channel with the guitar volume on 8. To take a lead, I can turn the guitar volume up to 10, or leave the volume alone and use 1 of the overdrive channels. Overdrive 2 is more fuzzy and trebly than overdrive 1.

The amp has a reverb knob, of which I have a little on the crunch channel. It has 2 effects knobs: 1 has chorus, phaser, flanger, vibe and octaves, the other 4 types of delay. The chorus is very nice, and I have it set on the clean channel. The delay I don't anticipate using much, if at all. There is also a damping button which "switches the power amp damping between classic amp feeling and modern response". It is off for Overdrive 1 and on for Overdrive 2.

I have had it out 2x, including a 3 hour gig yesterday. It has a 2 button foot switch. The left button switches between the clean and crunch channels, the right button switches between overdrive channels. I am still messing up and hitting the right button to kick on overdrive, then hitting it again to turn off overdrive, which instead selects the other overdrive. You have to hit the left button to get out of overdrive. I suspect I'll get used to it. Just have to remember the buttons select channels, unlike effects pedals which are on off.

I read Charlie Stross's latest, "Empire Games", 332 pages. This is "The Merchant Princes, the Next Generation". It's set 17 years after the end of the 6 Merchant Princes books. I liked those books - worldwalkers reminiscent of Zelazny's Amber books, but more science fiction than fantasy. The worldline closest to us has a scary, post-nuclear-attack US that is a complete surveillance society. The other main worldline explores what the US might be like if the American Revolution had happened well after the Industrial Revolution.

The 1st half of the book is mostly setup. The main character is likeable enough. It was a quick read, and I am glad Stross has returned to this series.

Stross has also lately in his blog making some pretty scary conjectures on the outcome of the rise of neo-fascism, as shown in Brexit, the Trump/Breitbart ascension, and other far right politicians gaining ground in Europe. See for instance his latest post.

I really liked the story by Karl Schroeder in the Heiroglyph collection, which I blogged about here. His focus seems to be on the future of governance and economics in our environment of ever-increasing information. I also have liked some of his blog posts and other writing. I thought he had written on addressing the "fake news" problem by using blockchain technology to automatically establish provenance on every item on the internet - hmmm, I can't find it, maybe he just tweeted a link to an article similar to this one.

Anyway, I decided to backfill myself on some of his earlier novels. 1st up was his 1st novel "Ventus", 2001, 485 pages. This reminded me of the movie "Avatar" in that it is about a post-singularity world, as I was convinced that the Avatar world of Pandora was. Note, tho, the novel predates "Avatar" by 8 years.

Ventus is a designed world with nanotechnology infusing everything, creating what should be an intelligent world where most wishes can be easily granted by the environment - but which refuses to cooperate and follow commands.

Schroeder creates the concept thalience - of intelligent matter maybe striving for consciousness, but on its own terms, rather than on human ones. Some interesting ideas there. I was reminded of a recent article claiming that the Google translation software may have essentially invented its own language. This is yet another of the many, many areas where we find that our anthropocentric and parochial attitudes are dead wrong. Real AI, once it starts to grow, will definitely go its own way. I just hope they love us. Or that we are, as Shroeder puts it, "regarded ... as a treasured companion".

The story also reminded me of the Iain M. Banks Culture novels. The backdrop is The Archipelago, a galactic civilization of 10s or 100s of 1000s of habitats, and a solar system with a population of 70 trillion, and godlike AIs and uploaded humans in the mix. Nice! An enjoyable read with interesting concepts.

At some point, I would like to go back and reread the Culture novels in order - all 9 of them. Well, I got that going for me. I still am bummed by Banks' early death at age 59 in 2013.

Then I read Schroeder's most recent novel, "Lockstep", 2014, 352 pages. I figured out early on that this was a YA novel. The protagonist is 17 and part of the plot is his trying to get a girlfriend.

This book reminded me of the movie "Jupiter Ascending", which came out 1 year after this book. In both, the young protagonist finds out suddenly that they are heir to a vast fortune including 10s of 1000s of worlds, and that their relatives are not happy about sharing.

There are some interesting concepts in the book. "Lockstep" is the system whereby worlds hibernate for 30 years in between 1 month periods of wakefulness. It was originally developed to allow life on resource-poor, dark worlds - more resources can be aggregated by non-sleeping automation during the hibernation periods. It enables, realistically, the creation of an interstellar civilization that does not have FTL (faster than light) travel - interesting.

The starting point of the book includes an earth where the trillionaires just want more, more, more, and could care less about everyone else. Sound familiar? Schroeder also explores some ideas on new forms of governance.

I found the emotional responses of some of the characters at the end of the book to be somewhat unrealistic. I don't think Schroeder has fully realized his character development writing skills yet - or maybe he's just dumbing it down a little for the YA audience - but his books sure have great concepts. This was another enjoyable read.

Between books, I have been skimming a book my wife got me for xmas: "The Ants", by Bert Holldobler & E.O. Wilson, 1990, 732 pages. She found me a used copy of this epic hardcopy tome - it weighs 7.2#. Many fun facts about the family Formicidae, and lots of nice pictures.

Next up, I am going to attempt to transition back to some more serious economics reading by a collection of short stories about climate change, and a collection about surveillance and transparency.