The Killing of Worlds (Succession, #2) by Scott Westerfeld Rothdas book review RSS
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A perfectly enjoyable and fast-reading space opera. One third of the book goes to space battles, one third to politics/world building, and one third to surprisingly non-terrible romances. The world building and sci-fi elements are well thought out, meaty, and occasionally clever. They aren't as brilliant as you would find in M. Banks, and there are occasional mis-steps (authors, please stop mixing psionics in with your sci-fi stories! Keep the psychics in the fantasy ghetto! Thank you!), but overall the story doesn't make you feel dumb when you read and enjoy it. Oh, and the big reveal at the end was a bit underwhelming. Still, it seems like a solid foundation for a new series.




The Risen Empire (Succession, #1) by Scott Westerfeld
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A perfectly enjoyable and fast-reading space opera. One third of the book goes to space battles, one third to politics/world building, and one third to surprisingly non-terrible romances. The world building and sci-fi elements are well thought out, meaty, and occasionally clever. They aren't as brilliant as you would find in M. Banks, and there are occasional mis-steps (authors, please stop mixing psionics in with your sci-fi stories! Keep the psychics in the fantasy ghetto! Thank you!), but overall the story doesn't make you feel dumb when you read and enjoy it.




Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

An extremely engaging, informative, and detailed history of the Civil War. I read the first 200 pages straight through, which is usually something that happens with trashy fantasy novels, not histories of the US politics of 1830-1860. The book has great quotations and excellent maps. I also found it to be an enjoyably inflammatory book; after that first 200 pages I was completely ready to join the Union army and shoot Confederates. I think this might finally be the book that cements the history of the Civil War in my mind.




Dies the Fire (Emberverse, #1) by S.M. Stirling
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Terrible. God-awful. Racist. Cliched, like literally adventurers-meet-in-a-tavern cliched. Fellates SCA people like Cory Doctrow does IT people. These are a few of the things I thought while reading the first part of this book.




The Russia House by John le Carre
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




The Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

In many ways, this is the same book as _In the First Circle_. In both books, plot is mostly tossed out in favor of dozens of slices of life from various people in a collective. It's difficult to identify a common tone of these snapshots, since each character has their own viewpoint and circumstances. A muddled grey maybe? This time the setting is a Soviet cancer ward rather than a Soviet gulag, but the cheerfulness of the stories is about the same.

After reading 750 pages of slice-of-life in _First Circle_, I'm not sure that I needed another 500 pages from _The Cancer Ward_. There are some differences between the books, but they're mostly negative. Both books are semi-auto-biographical, but in _Cancer Ward_ the author's stand in graduates from bit player to main character, and gets a third of the total pages. This is unfortunate since while the author is not bad, he's not really the most interesting character in the book, and his sections veer between seeming somewhat Mary Suish, to taking the piss out of himself. Again, I'm not quite sure what to make of it, whether it is an author who has started to buy into his own fame, an unsparing self portrait, or maybe a self portrait that was meant to be flattering but comes across to modern, enlightened readers such as myself as unflattering. While the author's writing benefits from his lived experiences, he is pretty much a 1950's Russian nationalist with some Tolstoy thrown in, and I don't really know that I need to read his more general musings. Or to put it another way, I do appreciate the experiences he has brought back from the extremes, but don't think he has that much to say about the more everyday parts of life.

There are excellent chapters in this book, and there are themes that it covers that are different from the other gulag novels. And _Cancer Ward_ is a somewhat more optimistic book, in that Stalin has died and past repressions are being rolled back. Still, I can't say that this book produced much in me besides a general feeling of malaise.




In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A depressing book, but high quality and occasionally quite moving. The First Circle refers to a system of gulags for the engineers who are too useful to be sent to hard-labor camps. Those in the First Circle of hell enjoy a measure of safety and physical comfort, in exchange for working on technical projects for Stalin's regime. The book itself is a 48-hour window into the lives of those engineers and the people around them. Generally, each of the 50+ characters will get one PoV chapter, and the book covers not just engineers, but also wives, girlfriends, security officers, janitors, administrators, and party bosses. There is a plot to the book, but it is rather slight and incidental. The majority of the book's 750 pages consists of camp stories and life histories from those under the regime.

These life histories are well done, and they take a foreign and confused time and make it vivid and real. At its best, the book manages to convey and make real the immense human potential that was squandered by the regime. The author spent 10 years in the gulag system, and that lived experience comes through in his writing and in a wealth of small details. For engineers, this book will have an extra piquance, as there are many recognizable scenarios from your own life in the book. There are tech demos, schedule estimation meetings with the boss, and being called away from interesting work in order to attend Human Resources Communist Party meetings. Of course, each these scenarios in the book has its own special Stalinist flavor.

I feel like a bit of an asshole for not giving this book 5 stars, however the high points of the book were too diluted with writing that was merely good. There were too many characters for me to keep track of their interrelations, and this was compounded by the short PoV time for each character, as well as the fact that each Russian apparently has 5 different names. I also felt a slight disconnect from the story in many places, which I think is partially due to the fact that it is translation, and partially due to the fact that it is from a different culture. So in that sense I couldn't appreciate the nuances as much I could with someone like Nabokov.




Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

Well, this novel certainly was surprising. Like _Downbelow Station_, the previous book I read by CJ Cherryh, this one starts with a vulnerable young man being sexually tortured by a 100+ year old harridan with immense political/military power. Ok, I thought, apparently that is Cherryh's thing. Kind of an odd authorial fingerprint, but hey, the 60's were kind of crazy. But then other oddities started to mount up. Tons of yaoi theming? Detailed and believable psychological modeling? Wait a minute... CJ Cherryh is a woman! And its true, wikipedia confirmed it. Solving that mystery, and the other mysteries in the text, made the first 250 pages of this book a 5-star delight.

This enjoyable first half of the novel is basically Dollhouse done right. It covers a political intrigue in the Union, a group of separatist planets which relied on birth tanks and automated psychological programming to supply soldiers for their war of independence. Now that the war is over, these programmed people ("azi") are the back bone of their society, and Reseune Labs is where the magic all happens. The main characters are primarily scientists at the labs, and the action has to do with their intrigues as they try to bribe, threaten, blackmail, subvert, and murder each other. This is enjoyable! And while I feel Cherryh incorrectly models how some of these technologies would play out and be used, if you assume they would be employed as she says, the characterization and detail of what it would be like to live in such a world are top notch. At its best it is as if someone had written a real, honest to god literary novel in a world with mindwipes, skill-tapes, and perfectly devoted azi slaves.

And then there is the second half of the book, which at 350 pages is a very large half. Nothing new happens in this half. The same tensions/blackmail which animated the first half are endlessly rehashed. There aren't any significant plot developments, and we wade through chapters of made up psycho-science (fun game, count how many times she uses the word "flux" on a page. Note, *do not* try to make this into a drinking game). It's like she wrote the first part and then called Robert Jordan to ghost write the remainder. And finally, the whimpered ending that we've been expecting for the last 350 pages.

In summary, parents, please keep your teenagers away from Cherryh.




Maelstrom (Rifters, #2) by Peter Watts
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

After the cliff-hanger ending to Starfish, I was really excited about starting Maelstrom. That excitement steadily drained away over the course of this dreary book, until by the end I had precisely zero interest in the series.

Why is that? One factor is that while Starfish had a developing plot line and unraveling mysteries, in Maelstrom things just fall apart. The entire book is about people trying and failing to contain viruses, mostly because the world's author has decided he doesn't like people and wants their defenders to have really bad luck. A second factor is that in this book Watts stops writing about what he knows (marine biology), and starts writing about things he doesn't know (computers and people).

The many parts of the book that talk about future computers and future internet and future computer viruses are just painful. Watts is intent on applying his biological models to absolutely everything, and ends up with these absurd computer viruses and computing paradigms. In his world virtually every computer is running Windows 95 and has been rooted, and viruses are continually playing elaborate games of Core Wars in order to propagate themselves, and none of the ruthless, all controlling mega-corps have just said f'it and made their networks into fully trusted walled gardens.

The sections on personal motivation are no better. Every main character turns out to be some sort of anarchic nihilist, who would much rather watch the world burn than, say, continue to enjoy their luxurious upper-class existence (spoiler!). There is one exception to this, but apparently she is the villain? It is a bit like reading a Warhammer 40K book, if it was set entirely amongst Nurgle and Tzeentch cultists, and if the gleeful absurdity of 40K was drained out and replaced with a sort of adolescent anger and self importance. Watt's caustic view on things can be enjoyable when diluted with other plot lines, but in Maelstrom he just kind of wallows in it for 350 pages.

Overall the experience of reading the two books was a bit like reading Watt's blog. At first there are some good entries, but then you come across ones like where he goes to a con and makes an ass out of himself (http://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=1488). You then realize that in addition to his admirable qualities, Watts is also kind of an angry and self-righteous drunk.




The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture, #10) by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Surface Detail (Culture, #9) by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A middling Culture novel, which is to say a great sci-fi novel. You have many of the standard Culture tropes, however the quality and inventiveness of the details is such that even a partial re-tread is still a delight to read. The story itself is somewhat meandering, and follows a variety of different entities at various levels of technology, intellect, and reality. Some of these story threads threads taper out and some don't really connect to the others, so it is more of a slice of life novel rather than one that comes to a sharp point. There's a little twist at the end, but it's nothing like, say, _The Use of Weapons_.




Inversions (Culture, #6) by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A nice, filling portion of Banks. Not his greatest book, but Inversions is still a solid Culture book which is a very good thing indeed. Although perhaps "solid" isn't the best way to describe a book about deceptions and reversals. The story is somewhat odd in that it never mentions the Culture explicitly, so if you haven't read several of these books you will miss out on a sort of invisible half of the plot that is entirely off screen. On the other hand, if you have read several Culture books, then some of the major plot twists are going to be predictable, since Banks has typical ways in which he twists. Still, enjoyable. It is a bit reminiscent of _Despair_ or other Nabokov in its profusion of mirrored images and, well, inversions.




So Far From God: The U. S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 by John S.D. Eisenhower
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A decent summary of a mostly uninteresting war. I've never read much about the Mexican-American war, and I picked up this book to fill that gap. Every battle in the war follows the same basic pattern:
1) An advancing American army moves up to a Mexican army that has 2-4 times as many troops
2) The Mexican army is hunkered down in defensive positions, since they don't have the leadership, training, or morale for offensive operations.
3A) The American army uses its superior artillery to blast away at the defenses, and then charges in after several hours or days of that. Or,
3B) The American army moves around to a vulnerable flank of the defenses, and starts rolling the defensive line up from one side to the other.
4) Massive route/surrender of the Mexican army, starting from the top.

This process happens ~8 times over the course of the war, with only one deviation. After that, viola, the bloody and unjust war of expansion is complete.

I feel somewhat dumb for saying this, but my favorite part of the book was the portraits. After 30 years of fighting, General Taylor looks suitably nonplussed by the whole experience. Polk looks eerily like Lucius Malfoy. Winfield Scott is suitably craggy and blustery.




The Clockwork Rocket (Orthogonal Trilogy #1) by Greg Egan
1.0 Stars
1-1-2015

This is a deeply flawed story. On the one hand, it describes a completely alien universe. The narrator is a shape shifter with multiple eye/brain nodes that can extrude appendages at will and reproduce in a fashion similar to yeast. Her universe has a different topology than our own, and a different set of fundamental physics. On the other hand, the characters in the book are basically western academics. They are professors, tutors, and students, they have academic turf battles and political spats. They care about things like "science", they have egos at all. This is kind of idiotic. First, why bother having aliens if you are just going to make them act like humans? Second, these concepts of science and ego do not mean anything to my cat, much less to xenomorphs from an alien dimension. Other sci-fi stories have dealt with the problem of describing the alien in various clever ways. For instance, the thematically similar "A Deepness in the Sky" explains the anthropomorphizing needed to tell a story as a deliberate propaganda tactic by certain characters to induce empathy for the aliens. Clockwork Rocket isn't really clever like that. Even with the anthropomorphizing, the characterization is mostly thin gruel. We never really care for the characters or get a sense for their society except that it is basically an analogue of western-academic society.

Despite this, the story still could have been salvaged. There are plenty of shallow books that don't make much sense but are still fun to read. And the basic trope is sound: characters/society need to advance up the tech tree as quickly as possible in order to meet some oncoming challenge. Unfortunately, Egan has decided that he needs to model the physics of his alternate universe in exacting detail. About 1/3 of the total pages are spent in detailed optics/physics lessons. I didn't appreciate it when my college professors tried to teach me physics, and I appreciate it even less when Egan does. These horrid info dumps are hung around the neck of the story like a flock of rotting albatrosses, and they consistently stop the narrative dead every 30 pages. While these mathematical explorations may seem seem superficially smart, I balk at the idea that anyone can make multiple large revisions to fundamental physics and then comprehend the ripple effects this will have over the ~100 orders of magnitude contained in the universe. At this stage, you are so far off the map that you should just say "a wizard did it" rather than wasting 100 pages of charts and graphs laying out the incorrect science of a made up universe. What makes this all the worse is that in the end all of this effort is wasted, since the characters in the made up world could just as easily have been Egan's colleagues in the faculty lounge.




Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015




Starfish by Peter Watts
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A very enjoyable and somewhat bleak near future sci-fi story. Peter Watts definitely has a style, and if you've read Blindsight then you will know what to expect here. The standard elements include extreme and inhuman environments, humans who have been augmented/damaged to the point of being almost alien, genuine aliens, a continual disgust with "normal" human consciousness and aspirations, and an giant pile of interesting ideas that eventually grows of too high and topples over. Overall, the story was like a slightly less polished and slightly softer version of Blindsight. The great beginning is partially marred by the over-profusion of ideas; I feel like Watts could have written a 5 star story by focusing in on 2 or 3 of the ideas/twists that he introduces. However, by the conclusion, when we have reached crazy idea number 7 or 8, the story has become a bit clouded.

Other minor quibbles:
- If you have a dozen characters, some of whom aren't well characterized, then don't randomly switch between using their first and last names.
- The supposed sociopaths who were manning the station really didn't seem that crazy, they just tended to have maladaptive sex fetishes. Otherwise their workplace manner was very professional, and much less crazy than some past co-workers.




Don't Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know About America's Greatest Conflict but Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis
3.0 Stars
1-1-2015

I checked this out in hopes of solidifying my knowledge of the period, which has always been somewhat mushy. The book is a good overview; it's readable, factual, and avoids numbing military detail. I'm still not sure I'll remember it, but eh.




The Italian Girl (Vintage Classics) by Iris Murdoch
5.0 Stars
1-1-2015

As this is from Murdoch, the book gets five stars. The next question is, how does it compare to her other works?

Unfortunately, not very well. I don't usually say this, but the book would be much improved if it was twice as long. In the book's 150 pages it rushes from one drama to another with not enough quiet moments or lead in or build up. It needed more room for people to have normal conversations and to give support for the high points of the book. Oddly enough, the descriptions of the natural world and the house hold surroundings get the usual lush and lengthy treatment, while the actual character interactions and dialog are these brief, sharp engagements. There are lots of conversations where people who barely know each other have short, impromptu exchanges about the upper reaches of metaphysics. It is a bit like reading Rand, except that the speeches are 1/50th as long and are in Murdoch's code rather than Rand's. Alternatively, it is like reading straight Simone Weil, rather than Murdoch's more usual Weil as adulterated by story and character. As is, The Italian Girl ends up being something of a parody of an Iris Murdoch novel.


Despite all of the above, The Italian Girl is not devoid of things to love. The protagonist is a standard Murdoch type, but he is still delightful in his quiet horror of marriage, messes, dirt, grease, alcohol, wetness, etc. etc. Otto is a wonderful pig, and the way he shovels various raw ingredients into his mouth and fails to notice hunks of butter about his person are great. And at least at the start Murdoch does a good job of quietly undercutting and satirizing her characters and their constant drama. In my favorite books she does this throughout the story, and this constant counterpoint is both part of her program and helps makes the drama and high abstractions more palatable. Also, as usual Murdoch is never afraid to throw a story on its head. It's a bit like reading a Philip K. Dick in that the world can shift rapidly and unpredictably in the space of sentences. Several of the shifts are standard Murdochian ones, but there is still a great deal of surprise.


I give it 2 Tallis'.




The First World War by John Keegan
2.0 Stars
1-1-2015

A somewhat ok overview of WWI. Based on other readings on the subject (Guns of August, Castles of Steel), I'm not sure that the author gets all of his facts/analysis right. For instance, when talking about a given battle or political decision, Guns of August might mention three different factors that contributed to the decision. Keegan's book will only mention one factor (and often the least important one).

Similarly, when it comes to the naval theatre, he outright disagrees with Castles of Steel, and I think incorrectly criticizes several of Fischer and Jellico's decisions. This was a bit galling for me, given the enormous experience and clarity of thought of these two men. For instance, Keegan snipes a lot at Fischer's decision to build battlecruisers (BCs) instead of more and more modern cruisers. Keegan says that the BCs intended roles were as scouts and to fight battleships directly, which isn't really the case.
The BCs could act as scouts, and they could support battleships against other battleships. Their main role though was hunting down and killing anything smaller than a battleship. Keegan then goes on to blame Coronel partly on the limited number of the expensive BCs, rather than on the miscommunications and political factors that led to the British commander choosing to engage in an unwinnable battle. Keegan also skips over the fact that once a BC did arrive on the scene, it did exactly what it was supposed to. The German ships couldn't out run it and couldn't fight it, and so were completely destroyed. Later on at Jutland, Keegan tries to support his point by implying that the British BC casualties were because the BCs tried to engage battleships directly. However, that wasn't actually the case, and the casualties were instead due to a BC vs BC fight. Finally, Keegan also I believe misses the point of Fischer's maxim about speed being the best defense. Fisher was not saying that speed allowed ships to avoid shells, but rather that it lets ships avoid unfavorable engagements in the first place.

Alright, one final point. Again at Jutland, Keegan criticizes Jellico's decision to turn his fleet away from the German torpedo spread. The criticism is basically that Jellico declined the chance to risk his fleet in order to win a major naval victory. Keegan misses out on or doesn't mention Jellico's reasoning that just by maintaining the fleet's strength and the blockade, the British fleet was already winning about 90% of what it could possibly win. Keegan doesn't draw the connection between Jellico preserving his ships (and power of blockade) and the collapse of Germany two years later, which in turn led to the scuttling of the entire German fleet.

So, based on the data points I do know, I'm not 100% confident in the analysis in the rest of the book. He does make several interesting points about the ground war, and it was relatively readable though, which is something.




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