Beggars in Spain is a novel-size expansion of a novelette under the same name. As a book, it consists of three separate but connected story segments, separated by time. The theme is transhumanism (of a sort) and human prejudice against anything “different”. It starts out in a fairly simple fashion: the development of a genetic modification which is able to remove the need for sleep (only available before birth). In the beginning only available to the very rich, it quickly produces a small but powerful group of young people who are just… better, in most regards, when compared with normal baseline humans. Their lack of need for sleep means that they are much, much more productive, and side effects of the treatment include high intelligence and (as it later develops) extremely long life spans. How does your typical person deal with something like this? With fear, segregation and violence, of course.
While it starts out as a fairly standard “oppressed minority of super-humans vs the masses” story, it gets points for not staying in that simplistic arena. The title of the book comes from the main philosophical question posed here: why should productive people help beggars? Specifically, here, why should the new Sleepless super-humans help normal humans, who are demonstrably less productive and therefore parasites (of a sort) in the Ayn Rand sense? The story follows Leisha Camden, one of the first Sleepless, as her own opinions around the question evolve. Some of the other Sleepless retreat into an armed “sanctuary”, convinced that the “Beggar” masses are hostile towards them: and they are right, in a sense. However, it’s not that simple.
The best thing here is that prejudice is examined from many angles. Baseline humans fear the Sleepless, who in turn fear them. And in both cases, that fear is not totally unfounded. There is also the recurring theme of human worth: is a “beggar” worth something to society, and should people support other people who are not as productive (and in some cases, do not even want to be productive)? There is also the matter of how the existence of a long-lived, super-intelligent subgroup of humanity might shape future society, in both good and bad.
Well worth a read.
To be honest, I haven’t been all that impressed by Connie Willis’ books to date. However, I haven’t read very many of them, and specifically have not read the ones that are supposed to be her best, so I really don’t have a strong opinion on her books yet. Since Passage isn’t generally regarded as being among her best work, I’m also not too concerned by the fact that it… wasn’t all that hot.
It’s not that it has a bad plot, or bad writing. The plot (or basic idea, at least) is decent, and the characters are quite well-rounded. There’s a nice bit of dark humor thrown around, concerning the vast labyrinths that most modern hospitals tend to be (with the staff passing around “how to get from A to B” info like secret lore), and also concerning hospital bureaucracy in general. So what’s the problem? Simply, it’s way too long. At 800 or so pages, it could (and should) have been cut to about a third of that page count in order to present a well-paced story. As is, it feels padded and plodding, with the main characters repeating the same scenes (with only small variations) over and over again. It’s a bit of a chore to read.
The plot concerns one Joanna Lander, a medical researcher studying NDEs (Near Death Experiences). She thinks there may be something more behind them than random electrical signals of a dying brain; as a foil to her research there’s Maurice Mandrake, a shill and pseudo-researcher who manipulates his interviewees into shoring up his own view (and books) which has NDEs be view of a (Christian) afterlife, along with ghosts of dead relatives and all the usual stuff. Joanna’s research gets into high gear when she teams up with a scientist who has discovered a way to chemically trigger something like an NDE in patients (without actual “near death”). She finds she’s always seeing the same visions… and those visions have nothing to do with heaven and everything to do with something horrible and menacing.
It’s an interesting tale, as such, though as noted it’s much too padded with page count. It’s quite firmly based on science (speculative science, of course), though the end does leave some room for interpretation. This is no “Flatliners”, there are no horrible creatures summoned by Science Man Was Not Meant To Do here. There are just some researchers trying to find answers, and some side characters with links to NDEs.
As an aside, the cover of the edition I have (not the one pictured here) contains a stupid spoiler. The first third of the book concerns the small mystery of what Joanna’s visions actually are about. Well, the cover in question spells that out directly, spoiling the mystery before you even start reading. Duh. Way to do, idiots in charge of the art department. Sure, it’s not the major mystery here, but it is a plot point and spoilers are spoilers. They should not be on the book cover, ffs.
Cryoburn is the latest book in Bujold’s “Miles Vorkosigan” series. It’s a great series, but it’s also a bit problematic. It has some fantastic books later on, but the (chronologically) earlier books are only “ok”. However, in order for the later awesome stuff to fully resonate, you pretty much have to read the earlier books too. I consider the high points of the series to be “Mirror Dance” and “Memory”, with the light(er)hearted “A Civil Campaign” getting special mention. “Diplomatic Immunity”, the next book after those, wasn’t nearly as good in my mind, and unfortunately the same can be said for this book. It’s by no means bad; it’s good page-turning entertainment and quite solidly written. However, at no point (bar perhaps the very end) does it really rise above that.
Miles is visiting Kibou-daini, attending a conference on cryotechnology, when he is suddenly kidnapped. Escaping his captors, he wanders off in a drugged state of mind and encounters some locals – and while “off the grid” in this fashion, finds out some facts about the local cryofreezing business that many would prefer remain secret. In a way it’s quite a traditional Miles Vorkosigan plot, but it’s somehow muted here; Miles is quite passive in many regards here, with side characters stealing some of the action, and it’s not quite the same. There is an important event at the book’s end, told via several very short snap viewpoints, which promises more upcoming stuff for Miles to do – so I’m hopeful for another great book in this series. This one is worth a read if you’ve read the previous books, it’s good entertainment and great vacation reading, but it doesn’t rise to even the level of the previous book, let alone the highlights of the series.
Ghost Story continues the Dresden Files storyline after the world-shaking (and series-changing) events in Changes. A novella in Side Jobs did focus on Murphy after Harry… well, apparently, was murdered, but that ending has still been left as a cliff-hanger of sorts up to now.
Well, it turns out that the ending was quite appropriate for Changes. Harry is now dead (but not quite gone). He “awakes” as a ghost, but instead of the afterlife he gets a strange distorted version of Chicago, where beings who act like police officers give him a task: go back to the “real world” and find out who killed you. If not, people he loves will suffer. So, we actually get a ghostly Harry investigating… his own murder.
It’s a great book, once again, and it also sets up the series for a shift in storylines. After the destruction of the Red Court the main antagonists are now gone; sure, we have the Fomori as introduced in Side Jobs, but they are as of yet somewhat undefined. Harry as a ghost is amusing, and we get to meet many of the other characters too, most trying to get to grips with Harry’s death and the resulting power vacuum (which various hostiles are trying to take advantage of). The bulk of the book concerns a group of very nasty ghosts, and someone (or something) who is apparently summoning them, but it also sets up possible future directions. No, this book isn’t the end of the series, despite Harry’s death. I have to admit: I didn’t see the “whodunnit” coming, that one was quite inspired (and totally logical, in hindsight).
Of course, I’m not telling everything here. There are spoilers to be given, which I quite definitely will not give. Read the damn thing. It’s great.
Through a Glass, Darkly is the latest published Delta Green novel. Stuck a long time in literary limbo, it finally saw the light of day via Kickstarter.
It’s a good book, and almost essential reading to anyone interested in Delta Green. However, you must know the setting in order to understand anything here. If “green box”, “Groversille”, “NRO DELTA” and “A-Cell” are familiar concepts to you: dive right in. It’s quite a ride. If not, please skip reading this book until your security clearance improves. Page count is not expended here in needless exposition, and readers without the required background info will almost certainly be left bewildered.
The story itself details a critical junction point for Delta Green, perhaps foreshadowing the way the game setting will be updated in the upcoming new version. The original DG was set firmly in the middle of 1990’s paranoia, and some elements there are a bit dated now. The events in this book show one way in which the long cold war between Delta Green and Majestic-12 may come to an end. Well, sort of.
The plot concerns Project Looking Glass, a strange device with possibly vast implications. Some people vanish, and later a young boy appears at his parents’ door. Problem is, the boy in question has been dead and buried for years. The parents do not dare question the “miracle” of the return of their son, but DG is more paranoid. With good reason, as it turns out. From there, events escalate, with some ancient players of the covert game coming out of the woodwork, some for the final time.
The ending is a bit bizarre, I think I may need a re-read to totally figure out what happened. That doesn’t detract, though. The book is a fast read, and events proceed in ever-escalating fashion with a suitably climactic conclusion.
Mask of the Other is a new ebook-only piece of fiction from Greg Stolze. I picked it up as soon as I saw it, since, well… Greg is a good writer, I was in New Zealand and thinking about what to read next, and the price was right. I’m glad I did, it’s actually a really good book. It’s also a Cthulhu mythos book, though it doesn’t directly advertise that fact.
The book consists of three separate strands, which slowly weave together into a coherent whole. It is also not told in strict linear order, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the year numbers which precede each chapter. The book starts off with the main protagonist group, a squad of U.S. soldiers in 1991 back-country Iraq, caught in the middle of a surprise attack with some extremely weird factors thrown into the mix. From there it jumps to the other narratives: 1974 and coastal Cyprus, where something came out of the sea, something unkillable. And 1988, when a rock band vanished while shooting a video at a long-abandoned island town. I don’t want to describe the plot much more than that, but I will say this: it’s awesome for once to read about people facing the Mythos with actual combat tactics and modern heavy firepower. No, that doesn’t help quite as much as you might think, but it’s still a different ballgame from the usual “scared civilians with shotguns”.
It’s a good tale, and overall a very solid piece of modern(ish) Cthulhu fiction. Recommended.
…and hey, any book which starts off with a chapter named “Saddam’s Got a Death Ray” can’t be all that bad.
The Marriage of Virtue and Viciousness continues (in a way) the story begun in Hunger Like Fire, skipping much of the side events in Blood In, Blood Out. Persephone Moore and Solomon Birch are front and center, with much of the book focusing on the politics surrounding Birch – his Blood Bond to Prince Maxwell is largely seen by his “own people” (some elements in the Lancea Sanctum) as too big a liability, and the demands for him to step down escalate. At the same time, there is apparently a vampire hunter in town, a mortal who somehow manages to be dangerous to local Kindred.
There are two main threads running through the book. One is the vampire internal politics one, which is interesting enough since the status quo is threatened and various parties scramble to hold on to their positions (or grab someone else’s). The other thread concerns the vampire hunter, and it’s the best part here: it’s both exactly what it seems (an angry mortal out for blood) and not quite what it seems (I’ll avoid spoilers on that part). The whole book underlines many of the subtle schemes that underlie much of Kindred existence, and as such highlights much of what Requiem is supposed to be about as a game.
It’s probably the best book in this sort-of-trilogy. It’s not awesome by any means, but it’s competently written and serves as a nice intro to the game world. While it probably works as a standalone, reading Hunger Like Fire first is recommended.
Blood In, Blood Out is the second part of the Vampire: the Requiem trilogy of books – but it’s only (very) loosely connected with the first book. It’s also set in Chicago and features some of the same characters (most in the background), but the front-and-center characters here are quite new. The book focuses on an ex-gangbanger named Duce Carter, now a frontman for the local Carthian faction, trying to negotiate a fragile peace while elements both within the Carthians and within the more powerful faction maneuver to upset the cart. There’s intrigue, quite a bit of “slum gang politics”, and plenty of violence.
It’s not as good as Stolze’s “A Hunger Like Fire”, but neither is it a bad book. The black gangbanger viewpoint, while a bit cliched, is still quite interesting. Duce is somewhat dry as a main character and initially a bit too much of a hero, but some of that flakes off later on.
If you just want a continuation of the initial story and characters in the first book, this book offers little – plotwise, it’s a complete detour. On the other hand, it drops some new characters into the mix and is worth a read, as light entertainment.