The Business by Iain Banks Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A surprisingly light and upbeat Banks work. If you were reading _The Business_ with no prior knowledge of Banks, you would think it was a curiously inconsequential business-mystery-thriller. No one gets badly hurt, no one dies of unnatural causes, and a white-collar crime is almost committed before being re-purposed into a fairly legal and reasonably beneficial business deal. To top it off, the whole thing ends with a marriage, which I think might be unique for a Banks book.

If you are familiar with Banks, then the novel is in some sense about the voids in the story. You expect to see a typically Banksian event come about and complete the rhyme, but then he never actually goes ahead and says the last word. Despite ample opportunities, there aren't any revelations about family trees or personal identity, there aren't any murders or foul play, no one is trapped inside a hell simulation, etc. etc. In some places it seems almost like a farce of a normal Banks book. For instance, there is a "torture" scene, but it is just a materialistic exec being pressured by someone over-revving (and hence damaging) the engine of his new Ferrari.

I think the most important void in the story is what role, if any, the Culture plays. My interpretation is that the Business is a front for Special Circumstances, in the same way SC has used front businesses in other books. This would explain how the Business has lasted 1500 years longer than any nation or corporation, and why it has relatively democratic and progressive ideals. This also makes the book somewhat more sensible to me. It is a sort of day-in-the-life of a SC operation that is going smoothly, and where people are gradually replacing worse with better.


One weakness of this theory is that there isn't any direct support for it in the text. The closest I could find was on page 141, when the protagonist is being interviewed by an executive from the inner most circle:

"What would you sacrifice something of your own for, if not for the Business?"
"I don't know. Other people, maybe. It all depends on the circumstances."
Dessous grimaced and stared at the ceiling, looking suddenly bored with the whole conversation. "Yeah, I guess it always does, doesn't it?"

You see! Clearly Dessous is with SC.




A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Around page 200, I finally had to face the inevitable. This book was bad. Like, really, truly terribad. I want to love all of Iain Banks' work and shower him with 4 and 5 star reviews, but there is no way to justify it with _A Song of Stone_.

The primary problem is the narrator's voice. To give you an idea, I've opened the book to a random passage, and found:

"
While always preferring poetic injustice to prosaic probity, it would, I think, have been a shame if that which wakened us in the morning had put us instantly back to sleep again, so that in some state, we lay in. You were always the darker sleeper; I have seen your slow unslumbering take more than one cock's crow to achieve. Our reveille is accomplished, however, by something capable of flight which happily does not find its voice.

(page 98; he is woken up by an incoming artillery shell which turns out to be a dud)
"

Notice the forced & weaksauce double meanings, the yoda speak, the endless stream of unneeded and indirect verbiage. This style continues throughout the majority of the book. Occasionally Banks seems forget that his main character is supposed to be unreadable, and will lapse back into clear, non-grating prose, but in general it is 250 pages of this. The style does seem to be an intentional choice meant to to match the character, but it is a bad choice, as if _The Sound and the Fury_ was told entirely by Benjy. There are a few memorable scenes where the plotting and events start to redeem the book, but these are quickly smothered by more passages like the above. Overall, the story reads a bit like _The Stranger_ as narrated by a prolix twit.

Editors Note: A list of burns which did not make it into the final review:
- On the plus side, the _Steep Approach to Garbadale_ no longer has to think of itself as Banks' worst book.
- In the last week I've read multiple MLP fan-fics which are better than this.
- More like _A Song of Suck_.

Post Mortem, ~3 years later: Well, this is a pickle. I still hate the book as an experience, but it does bring up and examine ideas which are A) of continuing interest to me, in that every few months I find myself thinking along particular lines and then making use of this book's ideas, and also B) this book's ideas aren't really examined anywhere else that I have found. So, how many stars is that?




The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




The Green Millenium by Fritz Leiber
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Right Ho, Jeeves (Jeeves, #6) by P.G. Wodehouse
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Very Good, Jeeves! (Jeeves, #4) by P.G. Wodehouse
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves, #2) by P.G. Wodehouse
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Rime Isle by Fritz Leiber
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Shards of Honor (Vorkosigan Saga, #1) by Lois McMaster Bujold
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A decent space-opera-romance. The plotting was fine, the writing was of upper-middle quality. I could never quite get into it though. The male lead is kind of a douche and belongs to a douche society, and I never wanted really wanted the female lead to run away with him and reward his doucheness. Also, there is a frequent, jarring mismatch between the tone of the novel (honorable, courtly love and light comedy) and the actual events (a pointless war of aggression, rape camps).




Kiln People by David Brin
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

I'm not exactly sure how to rate this. If a good book has an absolutely terrible ending, how many stars is that? The ending is truly, awfully, horrible. I stopped in disgust with just ~30 pages to go, which I think is a first for me. Is this how the Mass Effect 3 people feel?

Things started off so well. There is a society (a prosperous, ultra-transparent California in 2100 AD), there is a SF concept (people can make temporary, expendable copies of themselves, which can then go off and do work for the original), and Brin explores how the concept would play out in the society (things aren't too bad). All perfectly respectable. In terms of plot Kiln People is an old fashioned detective story, except that multiple copies of the detective are unraveling different threads of the mystery at the same time. Brin's writing is light-hearted and moderately comic, and he is generally optimistic about the future. He's probably a bit too much so, but I think there's still plenty of insight and perception in what he envisions. I was especially enjoying this since the last time I read Brin was as a kid, and it was pleasant to have my childhood tastes confirmed. At least it was until page ~500, when Brin launches off into idiotic metaphysics, pyschic powers, time-travel, cringing tweeness, and any other idiotic idea he can fit in. He then drones on about these things for the last ~100 pages, bringing everything to a terrible, unreadable conclusion. Yes, it's all coming back to me now, that's how Brin's _Earth_ and _Startide_ ended too. I might give Brin another try after another 15 years have passed. Maybe.





Dauntless (The Lost Fleet, #1) by Jack Campbell
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Kind of second rate Honor Harrington stuff. On the plus side, it is quick reading, and never really offensive or anger-making.




Bloom by Wil McCarthy
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

An enjoyable, quick reading sci-fi story, like something Peter Watts might write on ecstasy. The story starts on Ganymede in the years after a nanotech accident(?) caused rainbow-goo to consume the inner solar system. We follow the protagonist as he takes an experimental ship from the sterile outer system, to the fecund mid-system settlements, and finally into the hot zones where the sun fuels a continual seethe of amok nanotech. Despite the post apocalyptic setting, the story never really feels dark, and I generally liked the hardworking, moderately neurotic, Swedish survivors who populate the outer system.

The book does many things right. The descriptions of the nanotech gone amok (aka blooms) are engaging, and often convey a pleasantly techno-Lovecraft vibe, complete with bloom cultists. Other physical and cultural descriptions are well done and steadily interesting. In general the world building is reasonable, occasionally clever, and doesn't push you away from the story. The finale isn't anything unexpected or ground breaking, but the intervening journey is enjoyable.




Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1) by Brandon Sanderson
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Mostly delightful. The exploration of the world and its magic system was a continual draw, and was generally more compelling than the plot/characters. The magic system is original as far as I know, and if a studio somewhere is not making a video game based on it then our world is missing out. The plot/characters were entirely solid.




The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

I simply could not get into this book. The protagonist works at developing video games and this subject matter forms a fair bit of the start of the book. I have at least a tangential knowledge of video game development, and everything in these sections is just completely and totally wrong. The character's mannerisms try to sound up to date and witty and charming, but come off as just screechingly offputting. At 100 pages in I could not make myself care about the characters at all, and on skipping to the ending I found it was exactly what I expected. The basic idea of the book (i.e. Mercatorianism) is interesting to me and I would like to see it further explored, but the execution here was just abysmal.




Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Destroy All Monsters, and Other Stories by Greg Hrbek
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Reading this made me think of a relatively new insult in online gaming, calling someone a "tryhard". The author needs to learn to slow down. Don't whip out the heavy handed symbolism at the very start. Warm the audience up, introduce some character detail first. As is it reads as an overly earnest junior effort.




The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A delightful book. The first chapter is a bit overblown and had me worried, but after that it settles down into a series of beautiful vignettes from the GWOT. There is a very direct and unmediated feel to the stories. Physical events are described in a straightforward and detailed fashion. The stories coming from politicians, bureaucrats, sheiks, warlords, CIA agents, citizens, and soldiers are mostly given as is. There is some analysis and commentary, but also a steady acknowledgement of the limits of his knowledge, and the difficulty in separating truth from various falsehoods and translations. In general, the author maintains a humble aspect and is generous to the people he describes. Kudos to the NYTimes for supporting reporters and reporting like this.




The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2) by Margaret Atwood
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

While not bad, The Year of the Flood was not up to the level of _Oryx and Crake_, and was at its worst where it intersected with the original book. Atwood should stick to her policy of avoiding sequels.

First, the good. Atwood's modeling of psyches and writing about relationships is enjoyable and deft. Even the somewhat hum-drum action that fills most of the book is made quietly enjoyable by this skill. Second, God's Gardeners (GG), the central religion of the book, is a delightfully imaginative and well fleshed out religion. This is one of the best versions of eco-Christianity I have seen, and is the primary reason I gave the book 4 stars rather than 2 or 3. Some of the hymns and sermons are just as good as the originals, and many have a quiet and delightful humor to them. The mix of absurd theology, cheerful euphemism, minor church politics, and unshakeable optimism in these sections was always enjoyable. Adam One was a particular favorite, and his canny intelligence, good humor, and wisdom and seemed like a bright mirror image of Crake from the first book. The Naruto to his Sasuke if you will.

The bad parts of the book are mostly where it ties into the original. In the first part of the book, you have well fleshed out, sympathetic, and very human protagonists growing up amongst the GG's. Unfortunately, they are then dropped into the compound world of Oryx and Crake, and Ren becomes obsessed with Jimmy. Fucking Jimmy. We've had enough of Jimmy, he had a whole book, and even there his best parts were when he was a mirror for the characters and events that surrounded him. We don't need more time spent on Jimmy, and certainly not by characters who are interesting and that we actually like. Even though this particular section ends fairly quickly, all of the parts that deal with the corporate world seemed like something of a second rate re-hash. This aspect of the world was already covered in great depth in the first book. The deafeningly tin-eared names for corporations, products, and tribes are still out in force. Editors, please don't let Atwood do this to herself again. Also, the plotting of the action, especially after the Flood, seemed rather weak. Zeb, the ultra-competent survivalist, is just fine sending out his two malnourished and untested friends on their own to hunt the Reaver-esque painballers. About ~80% of the named characters survive the supposedly species ending plague, and they all find each other in about a month. Etc. etc. Just as bad is what their survival does to all the themes and ideas in the first book. Crake's new creation and Crake's plague were supposed to be two sides of the same coin, with the plague eliminating the human stain that would otherwise destroy his perfect new creatures. If however plenty of humans survived the plague, then that elegance is right out the window, and the entire first book was basically for nothing. I try to make it OK by telling myself that the characters from The Flood will all die of skin cancer in a few years, but that's a wan comfort.

In conclusion, the Year of the Flood is a little flabby, a little overwritten, and has some major missteps, but is at least partially redeemed by a delightful religion and its adherents.




Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This is a simply excellent piece of work. One measure of its success is that after reading 700 pages of non-fiction, I was sad that the book was over and wished that it could continue on to cover more of history. The time period is meticulously researched, and the writing is clear, detailed, engaging, and thoughtful. Anderson's mastery of the subject is evident throughout the book, and really shines when he covers the details behind some of history's set stories (e.g. Washington vs Jumonville, Wolfe at Quebec). I was also greatly pleased by his coverage of the cultural factors in the struggle, and how they explain so much of the conflict and its results.

If I have one small quibble, it is that I would have liked modern, clearer maps (rather than, or perhaps in addition to, using the maps from the day).

Editor Note: 4-20-2018: *Vague Ramble Warning Engaged* Out of this entire 700 pages, one of the bits that has stuck with me and provided useful grist for further thought is this one little section near the end of the book, where he writes about the British Empire taking possession of various Western Hemisphere colonies towards the end of the war. In some places like the Caribbean this went extremely well for them, with the British rapidly and conquering and integrating the colonies with relatively little resistance or unrest or bloodshed. And that part makes sense, in that the British taking over the area from the French simplified or sorted out or made the economy of the region flow much more smoothly and rationally. Previously the area had been divided by the mercantile system, so that islands that were close to each and other and natural trading partners could not legally trade with each other. So you have one island making sugar, and another island 100 miles away with the distilleries to turn the sugar into rum, but because of the political divide and the mercantile system they weren't able to trade with each other without having to first ship the goods to their home capitals, pay various import duties, ship the goods back, etc. And then predictably smugglers came into the picture to circumvent those hurdles, which then were combated with enforcement ships and officers, and people being bribed and hanged and shot, etc. etc. So the previous situation didn't make sense and involved all sorts of wastage. But when the Brits took over all of the islands, suddenly the islands could trade with each other in a far more efficient and rational manner. Farms and factories were booming, the local elites were raking in profits, and basically everyone was happy with the new situation even though they had been conquered by their European foes.

And this contrasted with the attempted British occupation of the Philippines. The Brits were high from their Caribbean successes, and launched even more adventurous campaigns in the colonial theater. And they were initially successful in militarily taking over Manila. However, from there things went wrong, and they ran into the sort of bloody resistance that would re-occur in various forms for another 200+ years in the Philippines. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is that the British occupation there didn't make sense, it had terrible feng-shui, it didn't make anyone's life easier. They had cultural differences and disconnects and lack of connections, they arrived in the area with a razing, they didn't make the trade and economies of the area work any better by their arrival. So the Brits were able to hold on to Manila until the peace treaty, but they never fully controlled the country and even their brief time there was marked by conflict and massacres.

Which then brings us to the modern day, and the various fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, and books like the Forever War and Crossing Zero and, well, Fiasco. And this is somewhat simplistic, but I think part of the reason for these failures is similar to what is outlined in the above. There is no feng-shui to them, they try and fight against the dao. Iraq was designed by the Brits to be ungovernable, that's why (or part of why) it is so difficult to govern. And I don't know that I have any concrete suggestions at this point, except to think more broadly about how places can be changed/organized so that our efforts there aren't constantly about trying to push water uphill. Phrased another way, if there is not some cleverness to the post war plan it is a bad plan. Anyway! Just some random thoughts that were sparked today while listening to the Hell of a way to Die podcast.




Downbelow Station (Company Wars, #1) by C.J. Cherryh
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

While slightly space opera-ish, this book mainly looks at the people who are usually on the sidelines of such stories. The novel focuses on the politics and life experiences of refugees, workers, administrators, and merchants caught up in an escalating war between two great powers. The common dilemma they face is how to react in the face of threats and coercion by the warring military powers. How much should they cooperate, how much of their old life can they save, and how can they protect their loved ones are the common questions. The writing and characterization are surprisingly good, and this would have been a fine story absent any of its sci-fi trappings.


The book does have some unfortunate flaws. The first and last 5 pages of the book are horrible. The first 5 pages have terrible world building, including manned sub-FTL ships which are apparently hauling minerals back to Sol from distant stars. I nearly stopped reading at that point. Fortunately, the world building improves from there, and most of the other tech details are left safely vague. The last 5 pages have a variety of well developed characters, who have spent the last 400 pages being murderous and amoral players of power politics, breaking character and suddenly deciding that they are in a different novel altogether. Additionally, there are some fuzzy type aliens who occasionally interject themselves into the story. These sections were very uneven, with some parts being great (seeing the sun from space), and others being eminently skimmable.






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