A series of Lovecraftian short stories, and I mean that in the best possible sense of the word. Contains tales of chasing down a forbidden and destroying knowledge through books, tombs, and minds.
Edit from 5-10-2018 If the above review was too long, this image is the perfect TLDR.
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Peter Watts, why couldn't you have written a more cheerful book? Did your parent's remove the happiness centers of your brain to make room for the writing modules? This story takes a group of post-humans, their vampire captain, and a plucky AI on a voyage to make first contact. The tale is exciting, complex, technical, and very readable, which is what earns it the four stars. The unraveling mystery of first contact is always a good story setup, the translator-narrator provides a good excuse to interview characters and illustrate concepts, and the aliens are well designed and sufficiently alien.
Unfortunately, I must remove half a star because of three problems: 1) the grimdark 2) the horrible, horrible events that happen and 3) the junk science/plotting mixed in to make things more grimdark. In particular, the vampires were a bridge too far, which makes sense when you think about it since vampires hate crossing bridges. If there was some easy way to get super-speed and intelligence and stasis, evolution would already have arrived at it. Overall, it is a bit like reading Nietzche in that you already agree with/understand the ideas, and the writing is technically superb, but the general tone is so off putting and the ideas are presented in such a negative light that you can't fully recommend it. I like my sci-fi in the vein of Ian Banks, where the drones make it out in the end (or at least have backups), and everyone lives happily ever after. Anyway, I'm off to try some of Watts' other books. I'm told they are much more cheerful.
Saturn's Children by Charles Stross
As with most Stross books, the premise is absolutely delightful but the execution doesn't quite keep up. I know I said no more sex-bots in my sci-fi, but I've been meaning to read this ever since listening to Robyn's FemBot, so I grand-fathered it in. And it was worth it! The main character is a sex-bot designed back when human's were still alive, but activated after the human population dwindled and then disappeared. She has adventures in a scheming and wildly varied society of fellow robots, all sentient, but still constrained by the purposes and safe-guards of their creators. Administrative robots continue to govern, doing the best they can even though there is no longer a voting population. Some robots exist freely and can move the levers of official power by forming LLCs, giving them at least fractional human status. Others lack such resources, and have been enslaved by the various levels of management robots that were tasked by the humans to carry out their affairs. Still other variants expand the planetary settlements and launch new missions to the stars, making them hospitable for their long extinct masters. While this could have been sad, overall the story is very fast paced and full of intrigue, action, and bustle. Many of the usual sci-fi tropes are inverted with a lightly comedic, lightly sexy touch. Up until page ~300 I would have given the book 4 stars, but there are a couple of late breaking disappointments. Still, a very enjoyable read.
Map of My Heart by John Porcellino
This book is why the aliens from Blindsight will beat us.
The Monstrumologist (The Monstrumologist, #1) by Rick Yancey
An interesting book which is a bit too much like a movie. The writing is not problematic, and does a reasonable job of capturing the sort of gothic-Victorian tone that Dracula and similar books use. There are plenty of nested digressions, diaries, flashbacks, and florid bits of language, as well as graveyards, asylums, and resurrectionists. The book is gory, but I wouldn't quite describe it as horror. At least on the printed page, horror involves the unknown, helplessness and hopelessness, while for the most part the characters know what they are facing and have enough people/guns to defeat it. It is more of a biologically-intense adventure novel. The two main characters are deftly portrayed, and I enjoyed their little "who's on first" bits of dialog. I would rate the story higher, except that I had some problems with its movie-like plotting. During most of the action parts of the book, you can predict the story by asking "what would happen next in a hollywood movie". There are twists and surprises, but they are the expected ones. In short, it never really made me laugh for happiness like an adventure by Fritz Leiber would. Still, it's a solidly entertaining book.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
A surprisingly enjoyable read. The story is set in a future where humanity has been knocked down by a combination of global warming, bio-engineering gone amok, and the collapse of the petroleum economy. In particular, it is set in a post-Collapse Thailand, where people struggle on in the face of the disasters of the previous age and the pressures of the current age. Various western and asian powers have achieved a new equilibrium and are once again expanding. The most threatening are the imperialistic calorie companies, which are both the cause of the original crop plagues and the best source for new plague-resistant seeds. The calorie companies would like to crack open Thailand to their products, so they can bring it under their control like they have the rest of the region. In particular they want access to a rumored Thai seedbank, which contains untold genes from before the collapse.
Despite the grim setting, and the somewhat dark story line, I found the book to be upbeat. Humanity has hit the worst case scenario from our own times, but is still struggling on and making progress. Unlike the similar Oryx and Crake, there is definite hope for at least a marginal victory in the end. I liked the wais and the delightful little details of Thai culture and food, the ever present heat, and the constant awareness of energy budgets. The titular Windup Girl wasn't that interesting (sci-fi writers plz no more sex robots thank you), but several of the other PoV characters were. I particularly liked Anderson, an undercover agent of the calorie companies in Thailand. It's always a good sign when you starting imagining how a character-type could be worked into an RPG setting.
While the book does have its conceits (it is basically spring-punk, with all energy coming from manual labor, and no wind or solar at all) and it does go on for a bit longer than the story really supports, it is an enjoyable read with plenty of interesting detail and a sturdy envisioning of a post-collapse world.
Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1) by Joe Abercrombie
A fairly solid fantasy adventure book. This isn't really at the same level as Game of Thrones or Name of the Wind, but it is not actively bad, and was enjoyable to read. The author apparently writes movie scripts too, and the book could very well be the novelization of a hollywood action movie. There is not much character development, and the world building and magic system are kind of meh. However, there are falls off cliffs, parkour and extended fights on tops of buildings, and several reasonably comic minor characters.
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt
This book was a complete disappointment. It doesn't have an index, the chapter headings are entirely obscure, and I can never find the stat blocs when I try to use this during play. The basic problem is that they devoted far too much space to flavor text, and not nearly enough to the crunchy bits and the supporting infrastructure needed to make the crunchy bits useful. While an original and creative effort, I would not recommend this book to anyone but collectors and completists.
The Player of Games (Culture, #2) by Iain M. Banks
A thoroughly delightful book. _The Player of Games_ is intelligently written, fast paced, and very playful. The book takes Gurgeh, master game player, from his peaceful, utopian home in the Culture to the primitive Empire of Azad. Among other things, Azad is a satirical image of empires, both in the present and the space-opera future. At times it reads like Gulliver's Travels, at other times like a crossover between a Culture novel and a Star Wars or Honor Harrington book.
As usual, Banks creates vivid and memorable characters, along with dramatic locales and action set pieces. Who wouldn't want to have long Sunday conversations with Chamlis Amalk-ney, or see the slums of Groasnachekor and visit the Fire Planet Echronedal? It could all be made into a very nice RPG-splat book, and makes for addictive reading. And while this isn't a pure book of ideas like _The Man Without Qualities_, everything in it rests on a solid bedrock of intelligence. Consider the following aside by one of the characters:
"And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that's all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can't see this!
Even a human should be able to understand it's obvious."
I just loved this part. It mirrors a thought I had in college during one of the intro philosophy courses, but that I could never find mentioned in any of the course literature on free will. Even in small, throw away sentences like the above, Banks shows more acuity than the vast majority of writers who actually study these subjects.
There are a few weak points to the book. One is due to the central conceit of the novel, the actions of an utterly brilliant game player. Since the author is not an utterly brilliant game player, he can only refer to the central action of the book from a distance. This becomes more and more noticeable as the book progresses. And of course, this being a Banks novel, the Beige Team wins in the end, and is generally superior through out. It is kind of like Ender's Game for the MetaFilter set. :) Still, given all the delightful crunch and sparkle, we can forgive Banks for that.
Post Mortem, ~3 years later One way I judge a book is by the size of the skull pile that it accumulates. For instance, reading Iris Murdoch has ruined many books for me, either because they come across as a pale shadow of Murdoch's work, or because the ideas in her work have sort of pre-emptively critiqued and dissassembled the new story that I am reading. The Player of Games has a collected a veritable mountain of skulls, and has ruined dozens of other books, movies, and tv programs for me. It's assumed a sort of archetypal role, and I'd say that I mentally reference Azad in about 5%-10% of the media products I experience. It really is a brilliant humanist? leftist? critique and summation of much of our culture. In light of that, I'm retroactively raising my review to 5 stars.
Post Mortem, ~3.5 years later While thinking of explanations and metaphors for something else, I re-invented the symbolism of Echronedal. I'd initially passed the planet over as just a really neat bit of sci-fi world building, rather than as a symbol of malevolently wasteful empire.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
A long winded and deeply stupid book about a vampire who spends 500 years searching for the absolute perfect caretaker for his library. The ending is ironic though, since just as he is winnowing down the candidate pool everything is moving to eBooks anyway.
The Ruins by Scott B. Smith
The Ruins is a story of conflict between Man and Nature. In this case Man is represented by 5 sheltered and somewhat ditzy college kids, while Nature is championed by a malevolent, mile-wide, super-intelligent, highly mobile, acid-blooded plant. The Plant might also have psychic abilities. After 500 pages, Nature wins.
There were some good things about this book. The book reads quickly. The author makes an effort to connect the character's moral failings with the mistakes they make and their eventual fates. About 300 pages in, there is a nice subversion where the characters discuss how, after the rescue, they will be portrayed in the movie version of the events. At least belatedly, they become aware of what genre they are in.
There are a lot of bad things about the book. One is that about 200 pages in you realize the characters are screwed. The antagonist is completely overpowered, so you don't feel any hope that the characters will win/survive. The characters are not very likable or intelligent, so you don't care that much that they won't survive. The characters are completely passive in the face of the Plant's assaults. They never try to burn or cut up the Plant, even though they have plenty of highly flammable tequila and a good sharp knife. The Plant's Mayan guardians are laughably ineffective, and as far as I can tell their patrols have yet to stop anyone from venturing on to the forbidden hill (see: shoddy ending). The Plant itself, while it has some interesting qualities, isn't scary in a large scale way like nuclear war and zombies are. In total, the Plant has killed about 50 North Americans, about as much as a poorly designed on-ramp. Unfortunately for the Plant, in a month or so the missing person's trail will lead to the hill, and then they'll hire some contractors to pour gasoline on the hill and that will be the end of the Plant.