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junipergreen

pareidolia

science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else

not always save for work. never nice.

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The Body Library
Jeff Noon
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Bill Bila, Jud Nirenberg
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""Dino taught me never to cry. He said tears never solve anything."
A sad philosophy. Tears don't solve anything, maybe, but they're part of being human."
Nightflyers - George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin, A Song for Lya

"Man invents gods because he's afraid of being alone, scared of an empty universe, scared of the darkling plain."
Nightflyers - George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin, A Song for Lya

"But how much can human beings know each other? Aren't all of them cut off, really? Each alone in a big dark empty universe? We only trick ourselves when we think that someone else is there. In the end, in the cold and lonely end, it's only us, by ourselves, in the blackness."
Nightflyers - George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin, A Song for Lya

Echopraxia by Peter Watts

Echopraxia - Peter Watts

Echopraxia is more a sidequel than a sequel to BlindsightBlindsight blew me away and I feel comfortable in saying that it will very probably end up being my favourite book of the year. Unfortunately, Echopraxia is nowhere near as good as its predecessor – for multiple reasons.

 

1) Choice of narrator: I felt a certain kinship to Blindsight’s narrator Siri Keeton. I could relate to his difficulties to connect, to his struggling with interpersonal relationships, his misreadings of other people. I saw myself in him – and that’s an extremely rare occurrence. I didn’t expect it to happen again, and it didn’t. To most readers, Siri remained a freak, something inhuman; therefore Watts chose a more standard narrator for Echopraxia: Daniel Brüks, unaugmented baseline human. Brüks is clearly designed to work as a character to relate to, to chaperone readers through the story. He’s also your milquetoast straight white male, an academic and atheist, and more than a bit of a jerk. He spends a big part of the book talking down to a WoC character, trash-talkting her believes and belittling her faith. He’s supposed to be an asshole, a kind of “antihero with a conscience”. But antihero or not, the choice of narrator tells you something about how the author envisions his audience. It’s a vision not including me – or anyone else not fitting the straight white male academic mould. As a result, I felt uninvited, alienated, and quite frequently pissed off.

 

In a Q&A session, Watts expressed surprise about some readers‘ lack of connection with Brüks. Well, it’s absolutely no surprise to me. Brüks is not only unsympathetic, a person I not only can’t relate to, but wouldn’t even want to know in real life; he also has not agency. There’s not much reason for him – for Brüks, the individual – to be in the book in the first place. To add insult to injury, he also reads like Watts himself didn’t much care for his protagonist. And when the author doesn’t care, why should I?

 

2) Pacing & proseEchopraxia starts with what’s supposed to be an action-scene. We get a vampire commanding a zombie army, people spectacularly dying left and right, a hasty flight into space, explosions and whatnot. Unfortunately, this is written in such an obfuscating way that I often couldn’t tell what was actually going on. The author gets completely lost in his similes; but instead of making things clearer, the similes just muddy things further. It’s a textbook case of writing getting in the way of the story. If I can’t picture what’s going on, all action and suspense is lost.

 

The pacing’s off, too. The story starts with a bang and then just hangs there, with nothing happening. The characters‘ motivations and agencies are kept from the reader till very late in the book. Such mystery can work in favour of a story, upping the suspense. Here, the opposite happened: Instead of thrilled I felt bored to the point of losing all interest to even know the how and why of it. About halfway through, I spoilered myself to see if I should read on. I did and slogging through paid of in the end. Once Portia shows up, things get increasingly more interesting – at fucking last.

 

3) ThemesBlindsight dealt with the relation between intelligence and consciousness. Echopraxia focuses on the questions of free will versus determinism, and, more importantly, on the nature of God as a virus in a simulated universe (digital physics). I’m not the biggest fan of mixing religion and faith with science, but it can be interesting if done right. But Watts idea of religion is limited to monotheistic believe-systems in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ignoring much older faiths which used to be much more widespread. Western-centrism in action.

 

He’s also a bit too sure on the topic of free will versus determinism. Not everything is as settled as he might think it is. (Just a day after finishing the book, I read a meta-analysis by the North Carolina State University, showing methodological inconsistencies in neuroscientific studies trying to prove or disprove free will. In short, researchers are biased, and frequently find the results they are expecting to find. Not entirely surprising. Like the NCSU points out, this analysis does in no way mean that something like free will exists. But it puts a question mark behind some of Watts‘ pet studies – Libet, for example).

 

Despite all its problems, I don’t regret reading Echopraxia. It has a lot of things going for it. Portia, for one. The military zombies seem entirely plausible. And then there’s Colonel Jim Moore. Moore, not Brüks, is the human core of the story: a character showing actual emotion, following a relatable agency. I guess you could easily read his story arc as blatant misery porn; for me, the old Colonel was the emotional anchor, who kept me reading on when I had lost all interest in everything else. I was quite surprised by it, but I genuinely liked him.

 

So, I struggled with it, but the effort paid of in the end. I found the conclusion quite satisfying, and it leaves a lot of room for a third instalment. It was definitely an experience to read this book side by side with Spinoza’s Ethica(which I „read“ – or, more correctly, tried to read – as background for Samuel R. Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic). Spinoza seems regrettably neglected by today’s henchmen of determinism (although I just saw someone quoting him in the comments to the NCSU study) – maybe he’s too optimistic? Or simply forgotten? Be it as it may, the books complemented each other surprisingly well (or maybe not so surprisingly, if you’re already familiar with Spinoza).

 

ETA: I forgot the most important thing! The Soundtrack.

Editors - BelongNot really a theme-song, as the two texts don't have much connection, but it complements the mood. And is it me, or are they channeling this song from "28 Days Later" there at the end? That would explain why my mind immediately caught onto it and found it so fitting for a book featuring zombies.

Szczepan Twardoch - Der Boxer

Der Boxer - Szczepan Twardoch

In his charming beast of a novel, Twardoch combines lit fic pretension and American noir conventions, telling about a city divided by religion, tradition and prejudice, spanning time and space from 1937's Warsaw to 1987's Tel Aviv.

The official German synopsis provides a somewhat misleading image of this story. It doesn't tell you about the insufferable – and highly unreliable – narrator, nor about the story's concern with the Mideast conflict. It took me almost half the book to realize that I didn't get exactly what I bargained for, but what I got I liked a lot. Not least because Twardoch's prose is a joy to read; obsessed with detail, clothing, weapons, street-names, but a joy nonetheless. The genre conventions are firmly in place, maybe to some lit fic-reader's chagrin. Twardoch also shows his ability at playing lit fic tricks; I don't know if all of those were necessary, some could be seen as excess baggage, an assessment I wouldn't disagree with. But everything came together nicely, so I didn't mind.

Afaik, none of Twardoch's novels has been translated into English yet, which seems like a serious oversight.

 

--

 

Im Warschau des Jahres 1937 sitzt der 17-jährige Mojzesz Bernstein bei einem Boxkampf, es geht Juden gegen Polen, in der jüdischen Ecke Jakub Shapiro, der gerade Mojsesz Vater getötet hat. Im Tel Aviv des Jahres 1987 sitzt der 67-jährige Mojzesz Bernstein, nun unter dem Namen Mosche Inbar, General der israelischen Armee, vor seiner Schreibmaschine und schreibt auf, wie er Jakub Shapiro traf, den Mörder seines Vaters.

 

Jakub nimmt Mojzesz unter seine Fittiche. Für den Jungen bedeutet das eine Eintrittskarte in ein besseres Leben, denn Jakub Shapiro ist nicht nur Boxer, sondern auch die rechte Hand von Jan Kaplica, seines Zeichens Pate von Warschau und glühender Sozialist. Die politischen Irrungen der Zeit machen aber auch vor Kaplicas Imperium nicht halt: Sozialisten und Nationaldemokraten stehen sich in blutiger Feindschaft gegenüber, die Nationalisten führen Grabenkämpfe, rechte Kräfte planen einen (historisch nicht verbürgten) Putsch. Juden wie Jakub und Mojzesz sehen sich außerdem zunehmendem Antisemitismus ausgesetzt. Warschau ist eine geteilte Stadt, ein Teil wohlhabend, westlich orientiert und christlich, der andere ärmlich, dem Osten zugewandt und jüdisch. Die Spaltung wird nur noch tiefer. Vor diesem Hintergrund steigt Jakub Shapiro zum König der Unterwelt auf; Król, also König, heißt auch das polnische Original. Ein etwas treffenderer Titel, denn geboxt wird im Buch nur wenig.

 

Mojzesz Bernstein ist ein anstrengender Erzähler. Er greift vor, er greift zurück, betont immer wieder, was er zum Zeitpunkt der Handlung noch nicht wusste und erst später erfahren hat. In längeren Einschüben erinnert er sich an seine Zeit in der Armee, an seinen Beitrag zum Nahost-Konflikt, oder meint sich zumindest zu erinnern. Die Zeitebenen vermischen sich, die Grenzen zwischen Mojzesz und Shapiros Geschichte verwischen und über allem schwebt ein irreales Element, das der Erzählung eine expressionistische Qualität verleiht.

 

Der Genre-Mix wird vermutlich nicht jedem gefallen. Für die Liebhaber des American Noir ist Der Boxer vielleicht zu prätentiös, vielleicht kommt die Handlung auch zu langsam in Gang. Für Fans historischer Romane bleiben die geschichtlichen Ereignisse vielleicht zu vage. Die Erzählung deutet den historischen Hintergrund nur an, erst Übersetzer Olaf Kühl gibt am Ende des Buches einen kurzen Abriss über den geschichtlichen Zusammenhang. Für jemanden, der wie ich mit der Geschichte Polens nur wenig vertraut ist, taugt dieser aber eher als Stichwortgeber für die eigene Recherche. (Für polnische Leser wiederum handelt es sich wahrscheinlich um Allgemeinwissen, das keiner näheren Erklärung bedarf.) Für Belletristik-Leser schließlich ist das Buch vielleicht doch zu sehr in den Konventionen der klassischen Gangsterballade verhaftet. Das wird vor allem anhand der Charaktere deutlich. Twardoch fährt durchaus interessantes Personal auf, Pantaleon zum Beispiel mit seinem ganz persönlichen Teufel oder Tjutschew, den stillen Russen (ein gutes Namensgedächtnis ist hier übrigens von Vorteil). Aber die Figuren sind recht eindimensional, entweder überlebensgroß wie der unbesiegbare Boxer Shapiro oder erbärmlich, wie einige feindliche Gestalten. Insbesondere die Frauenfiguren bleiben blass, ihre Rollen sind klar aufgeteilt: Hure, Heilige, Femme Fatale. Es ist kein Männerbuch (was immer das ist), aber doch ein sehr männliches Buch, in einer Männerwelt, in der Frauen nur Randfiguren sind.

 

Sprachlich ist das Buch eine reine Freude. Twardoch schreibt detailversessen, ist verliebt in Kleidung, Waffen, Straßennamen; das kann nerven, aber ihm gelingen doch immer wieder immens schöne Sätze. Die genretypische Brutalität fehlt ebenfalls nicht und kommt dabei so lakonisch und in unerwarteten Momenten daher, dass sie selbst mich hartgesottene Leserin getroffen hat. Aber die Gewalt ist nie schockierender Selbstzweck; Twardoch glorifiziert nichts, seine Welt hat wenig Glorreiches. Noir eben, mit Literatur-Beimischung.

 

Ich weiß nicht, ob jeder von Twardochs literarischen Tricks notwendig ist oder ob sie die Geschichte am Ende nicht doch überfrachten. Während des Lesens haben mich diese Tricks jedenfalls wenig gestört. Ich habe ein wenig was anders bekommen als ich erwartet habe, aber was ich bekam, hat mir sehr gut gefallen. Jetzt möchte ich möglichst bald auch Morphin lesen. Das klingt nach etwas, das ich noch mehr mögen könnte.

Chandler Klang Smith - The Sky is Yours

The Sky is Yours - Chandler Klang Smith

Here is a city, and the city is burning.

 

There are two dragons, the yellow and the green. One would be an aberration, a hundred would be a proliferation, but two: two is a species, either dying off or just getting started.

 

The city is burning, and yet people stay. Stubborn, persistent, stupid: people stay. The penniless poor and the filthy rich, the ones with nowhere left to go, the ones who haven't learned to live anywhere else: people stay. Someone always stays behind.

 

Here is what scientists have learned:

1. The dragons lever land.

2. The dragons never eat.

3. The dragons never sleep.

4. Ballistics, rockets, stun guns, paratroopers, lassos toxic sprays, nets, high-pitched sounds, mass hysteria, and prayer do nothing to deter the dragons.

5. The dragons will not let us be.

 

This is a story about a city, a story about what it means to be young, and it has been compared to many things. Let me have my try: it's like The Princess Bride and Infinite Jest had a baby and had her raised by Jeff VanderMeer, reading her bedtime stories by Mervyn Peake. What this girl dreams then might be this story. (The author claims she was inspired by Jane Austen.)

 

It's sprawling, and funny, and harrowing; it's a satire, and some don't like its bite. It's ambitious, and totally crazy, and far from perfect. The first act is gold, the second act drags; when our young heroes should be questing, they sit around talking all the time (it's really a very dialogue-heavy work; the ghost of Austen, I suspect.) The third act closes the circle. All questions answered? No way, no how, but that's life, ain't it?

Ted Chiang - Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

 

Quite disappointing.

 

While technically well written and exhibiting a certain elegance in structure, Chiang's stories suffer from a lack of passion. With the sole exception of Understand, which serves at least a bit of juicy pulp towards the end, Chiang's offering are as dry as a decade old elephant's bone found in the Kalahari. Why should I care about a story, about characters, about relationships, if the author apparently doesn't give a fuck?

 

The other obstacle was the frequent blend of science and religious concepts. That's something I simply don't want to read. (Exceptions always proof the rule.)

 

Chiang might be what all the geek kids are raving about. I didn't find anything thought-proving or poignant or deep in his stories. For the most part I was just mildly bored. Oh well, I'll just go back into my New Wave corner – ludicrous science, but with passion! (and sex, and drugs, and acid jazz)

 

Ratings for the individual stories:

 

The Tower of Babylon: ***

Well executed, but not very exciting. Nor very original.

Understand: ****

By far my most favourite story in this collection. Reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, but with a different ending and much more pulpy. I especially liked the confrontation in the end.

Division by Zero: **

Too much math. The relationship is underdeveloped. Did Chiang have one single human emotion in his whole life? Because he sure doesn't know how to write about them.

Story of Your Life: ***

Blasphemy! Blasphemy! I liked the film better. The linguistics are more sound here, but this story suffers the most from Chiang's inability to present believable emotions.

Seventy-Two Letters: **

The weakest offering in the collection. Interesting premise, but too long, too wordy, and boring.

The Evolution of Human Science: ?

A blink and you'll miss it-piece on what human scientist will do when science as surpassed human understanding, too short to rate meaningfully. I have read better examples of exploring this particular problem.

Hell is the Absence of God: ****

[at first] I read about three pages before I decided to skip this, for reasons mentioned above: Please keep faith and gods out of my science fiction (except they're Greek gods and have a lot of queer sex. Then you can keep them.)

A few weeks later I got stuck in waiting-room limbo, read the story out of boredom - and yeah, I'm eating crow. It's one of the strongest offerings in this collection, unflinchingly following its premise.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: ***

Very timely, and it will probably stay timely for quite some, erm, time. But ultimately too simplistic and too superficial (kinda ironic, really); that's starts with reducing beauty to commercial beauty, ignoring the difference between beauty and sexual attractiveness (or desirability), and ends with mostly ignoring biological arguments for the sake of social justice. Oh well... The presentation of arguments made me suspect that Chiang's in favour of calligniosa, which – spoilers! - he admits to in his afterword. A bit more balance would have been nice.

Austin Chant - Peter Darling

Peter Darling - Austin Chant
Peter Pan escapes the world that wants him to stay Wendy Darling and flees to Neverland. But even games of Lost Boys and pirates can't last forever; even a Prince of Neverland has to grow up.
 
I liked how Chant handles Hook, showing him as the vicious, dastardly pirate and humanising him bit by bit. I also liked that we get to see a unstable version of Peter – a lonely boy playing war games to distract him from his pain. And I liked what little sex those two have on page; it's not much and not all that explicit, but it's sensual and intimate, a far cry above the usual porny, „kissing, blowjob, insert cock in anus“-choreography used in so many, far too many, m/m romances.
 
As per usual with these romance offerings, the story is very short, and feels rushed, the first half especially. I'd liked a bit more time to explore. Neverland has never been a simple, happy-go-lucky place, there was always a darker undercurrent; even the sugar-coated Disney version couldn't erase this completely. It's hinted at here, but it's not as visceral as it could have been.
 
The writing could've been a bit more polished, the book needs better proofreading, but overall it was a pleasant read, and Chant might be an author to watch.

 

Blindsight - Peter Watts

Blindsight - Peter Watts

 

 

What is this elusive thing we call „self“ anyway? What is consciousness, what is self-awareness, how does sentience relate to intelligence – and can there be one without the other? Peter Watts explores this questions in Blindsight and goes some disturbing ways. The human mind is a flimsy thing after all, easily manipulated, easily hacked. Our perceptions betray us, our perceived truth is a fabrication.

 

That's not exactly news, but Blindsight goes one step further, asking if our whole existence as sentient beings might not be a fluke. It turned out to be exactly the first contact-story I've always wanted to read. The kind of SF dealing with post-humanity I used to love and still like a great deal. It's grim and utterly bleak, nihilist and hopeless, too ambiguous for its own good, more than a little bit pretentious, not exactly sci-fi horror, but with a constant sense of dread. And although the darned aliens seem to speak English, it was also oddly satisfying in a linguistic and, even more so, semiotic sense. With some interesting tech to boot: subtitles for face-to-face communication – I WANT THAT! In short: My idea of fun.

 

It also turned out to be the perfect book to bridge 2017 and 2018, the last bit of Ariadne's thread combining the years, with yet another Theseus visiting yet another labyrinth. (And Gödel, of course. If I never read about this guy's fucking theorem ever again in my life, it would be too soon.)

 

Watts didn't make this an easy book to love – for most readers, at least. The language, the jargon, can be an obstacle. It's deliberately abstruse at points. Not everyone has fun parsing sentences like The new macrostructure hovered in the magnetosphere like the nested gimbals of some great phantom gyroscopeI still have no idea what that's even supposed to mean, even after looking up all the words. Watts keeps stringing words together with absolutely no regard for clarity. I don't know if this is his MO or owning to the story's narrator. I found my way into SF reading William Gibson, so I don't really mind.

 

The characters could be another obstacle. A ship full of mice, commandeered by a cat: four augmented humans and one sociopathic vampire. But although „less cuddlesome than usual“, like Watts described them, I didn't find them unlikeable. Szpindel, sliced with machinery as he might be, was basically a good man; Bates had guts and brains; from the Gang of Four I liked Sascha, she had drive. Sarasti, the vampire, was just as predatory as well-written vampires are supposed to be.

 

And then there's our narrator, Siri Keeton, half his brain cut out in childhood and replaced by machinery, a man with almost no sense of empathy and connection, the uncaring observer, a “Chinese Room”. At first I thought Watts just wanted to create a character who's hard to relate to; reading other reviews, that trick seems to work for more neurotypical readers. It worked differently for me. I could relate to Siri, because his half-brain and my brain think a lot alike. That birthday/ Game Theory thingy? I do the exact same thing in RL, for the exact same reason. And that's just one minor similarity. Siri and I share the difficulty to connect, to empathize; we stand outside, looking in, making others feel uncomfortable. (And why do people so unwilling to communicate end up working in communication?) This perceived similarities led to a stronger than usual response on my part; the very same thing that made me love the book also made me violently hate it sometimes. Especially when faced with questionable authorial decisions like the careless, ill informed, unnecessary, incredibly lazy use of rape and trauma as a plot-devices.

 

So, you can consider us lacking, if it makes you feel better and more wholesome. Watts does (or does he? I think he does) and in extension made Siri see himself as not fully human. He had to; more than anything, Siri is a plot-device, and the story wouldn't work any other way. That doesn't stop me from being somewhat angry (okay, very angry). You - general you - talk about empathy? You consider it a virtue? And yet your ability to empathize starts and stops with people similar to yourself, maybe extents to cats and dogs, but not, let's say, cows or chicken; includes next-of-kin, but not strangers, not aliens. No, considering what „normal“ people are capable of doing to each other, and to everything/everyone that's perceived as „other“ - I don't see myself as lacking.

 

Anywaaaaay - we're still talking about a book I rated 5 stars. And all that above is just to say: What's a mere plot-device and was probably also supposed to be a distancing method turned the book into an unexpectedly emotional and intense read for me. I just was unsettled for different reasons. I never expected the universe to be anything but vast and cold.

 

 

The Einstein Intersection - Samuel R. Delany

The Einstein Intersection - Samuel R. Delany, Neil Gaiman
**Slightly spoilery and full of pretension.**
 
You remember the legend of the Beatles? You remember the Beatle Ringo left his love even though she treated him tender. He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest forms of the legend go. After a hard day's night he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll.
 
Given a long enough time-span, our reality will turn to myth. When we are lucky, what we know about our lives will survive in stories, fuel the imagination of others, being re-lived in the grand tales and the small.
 
There is no death, only love.
 
On the surface, The Einstein Intersection is a quest. Lobey loses his beloved Friza and goes on a journey to wrestle her back from death. He has monsters to fight, cattle to tend to, and underworlds to enter. He has to leave old friends behind, to make new acquaintances and foes. Just like every hero, he has to confront his arch-nemesis, Kid Death, a read-headed child-devil.
 
It's a quest, a coming-of-age story, and a re-enactment of myths. Lobey and the other characters channel mythic figures, more than one at a time. Lobey is Orpheus and Theseus, further we have Minotaurs and oracles, a Cyclops who is also Jesus, the traitor who is every traitor combined, Persephone who is Jean Harlow who is every dream you ever had, and Death who is Billy the Kid who is the Devil. Through re-enacting, Delany confronts our myths and our myth-making. He uses the hero's quest as a rumination about differences and how we come to terms with them. These differences are the heart of the story, as are the contrasts: live and death and the in-between, village and town and city, feral Minotaurs and cattle-like dragons and tame dogs, the old tryst and the lost love and the object of pure desire. Lo and La and Le.
 
There is no death, only rhythm.
 
Delany creates an irrational universe in spellbinding prose. His writing is lyrical; it has rhythm. Poetic descriptions are juxtaposed with action sequences channelling classic pulp, in the best tradition of Alfred Bester (I have been told Delany is a fan).
 
While the prose is beautiful on a sentence to sentence level, and the individual episodes of Lobey's quest are fun to read, they don't connect all that well. I have too little familiarity with ancient myths to say if Delany was trying to imitate them here, or if he was simply making things up as he went along.
 
Each chapter – or rather episode, as there are no real chapter breaks – starts with an epigraph, some of them taken from Delany's own author's journal. That's more than a bit pretentious; but Delany was just in his mid-twenties when he wrote this book, a young author very full of himself (and, to the most part, rightly so); I'm willing to cut him some slack. 
 
There is no death. Only music.
 
Lobey is a musician. His flute is also his machete, an instrument to create and to destroy. It's one example for Delany's surrealist, metaphorical writing. It sometimes reaches obscurity and leaves the reader with an ending that is, just like the author wanted it to be, inconclusive.
 
No answers, but are the questions really that important? Endings can only be inconclusive, because there are no endings. This post-apocalyptic world is peopled with aliens who have taken over humanity's legacy, trying to walk in our shoes. But just like Lobey must transcend his role as Orpheus, earth's new inhabitants must learn to transcend the old myths and go on, making their own stories, to fully become themselves. A new beginning.
 
The appropriate soundtrack here would be the Beatles. But I'm really not that into the Beatles, so I chose the Orpheus tale from someone who is one of the greatest storytellers the great rock and the great roll ever had: The Lyre of Orpheus

 

Arshad Ahsanuddin - Insurrection

Insurrection - Arshad Ahsanuddin I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

**Spoilers for Zenith and Azimuth.**

It starts with a bang – and continues with a whimper, with not much happening for about 40% of the story.*
But when it finally delivers, it's back to Bang! again.

This is the third instalment in a series of m/m romance space opera/ time-travel stories. The first two parts have been a refreshing change to the usual m/m sci-fi fare: solid science-fiction stories with a lot of stuff happening in different time lines and a bit of romance in the background. Insurrection leaves this path and brings the romance to the front. It's the most relationship-focused instalment of the series – and has been a very mixed bag for me.

The first half I was mostly bored.
These stories have never been character-driven. This latest instalment reads like the author tried to change that (maybe due to quite a few readers asking for more romance), giving us more background information about his central characters and more human interaction. I can understand why he went there, but I doubt it was a wise choice. It just served to show what Ahsanuddin is lacking as an author: He's an author of action, not an author of feelz, good when describing what people are doing, but not so good when he tries to tackle their motivations, or the psychology behind them. And there's nothing wrong with that! A lot of space operas aren't driven by characters or emotions, relying on ragtag crews with one or two distinguishing character-traits for each member, fighting villainous villains – and it works! The attempt give the characters more depth is admirable, but didn't work here didn't. Not for me.
I mean, just take Edward as an example: The boy killed a whole world, destroyed a whole time line for mostly selfish reasons, but Ahsanuddin clearly has no idea how to translate this guilt into an emotion palpable for the reader.
The multiple romances continue to be equally devoid of real emotions; this didn't bug me as much in the previous instalments, because there the romance was kept in the background. Dragging it to the front shows the series weaknesses again: constant muttered „I love you“s are no replacement for actual feelings, and marriage proposals don't equal true love (I don't get why they are all so hung up on marrying anyway, but that might be just me). These characters are talking about their feelings a lot, but the only relationship here I can actually believe in is the one between Jacob and Thomas.

That doesn't mean there's nothing to enjoy here. Around 40%, the plot finally - finally! - makes a reappearance and the story recovers to the strength that made Azimuth such an enjoyable read. It offers many twist and turns, secrets wrapped in more secrets, and a lot of Redshirts dropping dead on the way – as well as some more important protagonists.
I still needed to suspend my disbelieve quite a bit: I've noticed before that Ahsanuddin's characters have a tendency to overreact – instead of knocking on the door, they blow up the whole house. Admiral Crazypants I and II here are no exceptions to the rule, always relying on the most extreme measures. But it makes for a fast-paced, exciting story, so I just got over my misgivings and enjoyed the ride.
The high-stake, high-octane action is where Ahsanuddin can shine. A very good editor might smooth the kinks, tease out believable, psychologically sound motivations and reactions from the characters, cut the story where it needs cutting, and add where it needs adding. The basis is there. (Apparently there was an editor in on this. Well... I still think the details need work.)

*Jaja, I hate people quoting T.S. Eliot in PA-reviews (only thing worse is PA authors quoting T.S. Eliot) , and now I'm doing it myself. So much for consistency.

The Last Days of New Paris

The Last Days of New Paris - China Miéville In Paris, you had to be ready to fight art and the Hellish – not to mention Nazis – so they labored under weapons for all eventualities.

It's another one of them alternative histories about WWII – but this time it's about Surrealist art fighting Nazis and demons in Paris. If you don't want to read that, there's probably no help for you anyway.

I felt sorry for the demons, btw.

A fucking storm, a reconfiguration, a shock wave of mad love, a burning blast of unconscious.
Paris fell, or rose, or fell, or rose, or fell.


While The Last Days of New Paris was definitely a ride on the weird side, riding S-Blast instead of S-Gerät, it was not as wild or nightmarish as it could have been, a bit too tame, too little sex and drugs and Rock'n'Roll for my personal taste. But my main problems are personal ones and not concerned with any technical issues: for one, novellas always give me a bit of a hard time; I need more time and space to care about a story. And (just like with every novella I've ever read) the plot here seemed a bit thin, a flat canvas, invoking just the pretence of depth. For two, I simply don't like Naziploitation, and this here wasn't an exception from the rule.

It is beautifully written, though.
Maybe even a bit too beautiful, with too much care on a sentence to sentence level. And maybe I read it a bit too fast: I liked the prose, but I also felt like overindulging on caramel chocolate from time to time. Being who I am, someone who frequently overindulges on caramel chocolate, that didn't stop me from reading this one too fast – so there.

”Something doesn't make sense,” Thibaut says.
“Really?” Sam says. “Just one thing?”


Very helpful resource

This is also one of these stories where Google wikipedia a bit of knowledge about WWII, especially French history, and Surrealism proves to be really helpful. I have the former, I lack the latter. My response to fine art is similar to my response to poetry: I can appreciate the effort, but it leaves me ultimately indifferent. Surrealist art, though, is a constant deja-vu, every work a picture already seen, the familiarity of forgotten dreams. Miéville sends the reader on a treasure-hunt for manifs – there's a extensive appendix, and Goodreads readers, always so incredibly helpful, have already provided a lot in their status updates, but it was fun to search for the different works of art and learn a bit about their history.
Just a pity I can't speak French.

Return to Neveryon

Return to Neveryon - Samuel R. Delany And thus, our story from the brink of civilisation, from brutal and barbaric times, from strange and terrible lands, about Liberators and Child Empresses, oppression and desire, dragons and dreamers, plagues and carnivals, signs and mirrors, tales and tale tellers, comes to an end.

We've heard about lovers fighting slavery; young girls riding dragons; bandits, merchants, Masters, and Vizerines going about their business; warrior women with double-bladed swords making their way through fabled and terrifying lands; tale tellers weaving their tales; famous men and not so famous women inventing very useful things.

We've learned that our memory deceives us, that tales develop, and that signs change their meaning. That's how legends are born.

The circles closed now. Let the legends live on.

(And now I have to thing about some curses combining terms for women's genitals, men's excreta, and cooking implements.
And did anybody find out what those blasted rubber balls were about?)

Pirate Utopia

Pirate Utopia - Bruce Sterling, John Coulthart ...and because I seem to be on a roll with such things...

Half A Crown (Small Change)

Half A Crown (Small Change) - Jo Walton This is a book I want to say too much about. I'll try to restrain myself as good as I can.

Where [b:Farthing|183740|Farthing (Small Change, #1)|Jo Walton|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1442714837s/183740.jpg|1884104] was an WWII AU dressed as a cozy mystery, and [b:Ha'penny|433716|Ha'penny (Small Change, #2)|Jo Walton|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1391143310s/433716.jpg|422656] an attempt at suspense, Half a Crown is a full-blown political thriller – one where the personal stakes for our heroes run very high. Of course, all of them are also cautionary tales.
The trilogy grows considerably bleaker from book to book, and part #3 is by far the most unpleasant one to read. It's also my favourite of the three.

Walton sticks to her proven structure, once again alternating between a female first person narrator - Carmichael's ward Elvira this time - and Carmichael's third person POV.
More than ten years after the events in Ha'penny, the political situation in Britain has turned even more dire. Britain's building her own concentration camps, and everyone lives under the watchful eyes of... well, the Watch, a Gestapo-like secret police. Carmichael himself has been forced to become Watch Commander, betraying the very justice he so fiercely wants to believe in. He accepted to save his loved ones – and to try to do a little good at least, to save at least some innocents. The essentially good man being forced to do essentially bad things is one of my favourite character tropes, and Walton certainly knows how to play it.

Then there's Elvira. From all of Walton's not-so-very-likeable female narrators, she's the most unlikeable one. It's not entirely her fault: she's an 18-year-old snobby deb, risen far beyond her working-class status and hyper-aware of it; she's also the very picture of a generation raised by fascism. Educated to be a mostly apolitical trophy-wife, she's trained not to question fascism, and to rat on anybody who might be up to anything “seditious and criminal”. Her chapters were hard to read for me, exactly because Walton pinned such a believable character here.

It was also quite interesting to see Carmichael through the eyes of this little wannabe fascist. He isn't without fault, either. He can't help being a child of his time, with his deeply ingrained misogyny and homophobia, although being queer himself. There's a particular unpleasant scene at an underground gay nightclub, and Carmichael's resentment towards other gay men, especially effeminate men, was almost unreadable for me. I could just marvel at his partner Jack; I don't know how Jack put up with it all, with Carmichael's work, his hours, with basically being his kept man. It must have been love, I guess.
Some of Carmichael's decisions - well, a lot of his decisions come back to bite. His efforts to keep Elvira innocent and ignorant follow best intentions, but set events in motion that will break havoc on both their lives. After reading Ha'penny, I complained about a lack of tension and emotional investment. Well, I got enough of that here to last me till the end of the year (yeah, be careful what you wish for).

Some reviewers have complained about the ending being too rushed, too hopeful, too improbable. I'm inclined to agree; it is kind of a Hollywood ending. After all the bleakness, all the grief, it seems a bit unlikely, too convenient. But not everything gets resolved, not all questions are answered. There are a few lose ends left, just like in real life. The end offers a tentative silver-lining, and I was grateful for it. Call me naïve, but I just refuse to believe that we can't change this world for the better.
Last but not least, it's so rare for a book to engage me emotionally, to get me really invested in the characters; every author who manages has my utmost respect and admiration. And a book like this deserves five stars.

Ha'penny

Ha'penny - Jo Walton Something's rotten in the state of England.

Ha'penny starts about two weeks after the Farthing case in part #1. And once again Walton alternates between a female first person narrator – Viola Lark, ex-Larkin, peer's daughter gone actress – and Carmichael's third person limited POV. When a bomb tears a famous actress to pieces, Carmichael finds himself with a new case. Soon he has to face another conspiracy, one that Viola herself is being swept away with. But this time, the conspirators aim for the Bad Ones.

Somehow, this one didn't grab me like [b:Farthing|183740|Farthing (Small Change, #1)|Jo Walton|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1442714837s/183740.jpg|1884104] did.
The plot isn't all that original, and neither is the execution. Walton tackles the old questions: How far are you willing to go fighting for what you believe in? And how far if you don't believe at all, but are forced to act?
Both Viola and Carmichael find themselves caught up in circumstances where third parties force their hands. Both are made to do things they don't believe in. This could make for a riveting plot, but I didn't feel as emotionally involved, as ethically challenged as when, let's say, reading [b:First Against the Wall|7937238|First Against the Wall (The Administration, #6)|Manna Francis|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1272495303s/7937238.jpg|11343375] (the comparison is a bit unfair; not only has FatW a completely different plot and is set in The Future(TM), it also has five books of built-up. Plenty of time to choose sides, to choose people to like and people to hate).
Maybe it was just due to the heatwave during the last few days that I couldn't be arsed to feel invested in anything else than ice-cream. The stakes certainly are high here, but it never really felt that way. First of all, there was little to no suspense. I didn't know what was going to happen exactly, but I did know Viola would live long enough to tell the tale. And there's a part #3, so... no real suspense. Not until the last 50 pages, at least, where all the cozy went very bleak very fast and culminated in bitter irony. That I could appreciate.
The second reason I already mentioned above: while the characters face ethical challenges, I didn't. By all means, lets kill Hitler? Not necessarily a good idea, I did read [b:Making History|317457|Making History|Stephen Fry|https://d2arxad8u2l0g7.cloudfront.net/books/1355932489s/317457.jpg|1384] after all. But that's exactly the thing, Ha'penny is alternative history - it never happened, never will. Yes, I can see how it relates to today, I can see this very well (we have an election coming up this weekend, and people's recent fears will influence it not for the better, that much's for certain). But I just couldn't bring myself to care if that damned bomb detonated or not.
The third and last reason is Viola's own lack of emotional involvement. The only thing she's even remotely passionate about is acting. (Oh, and ice-cream. We have that in common, at least.) Everything else she treats with the same enthusiasm: none at all. Which makes her infatuation with Devlin all the more curious; when telling her story she seems completely blasé about it. Somehow that rubbed off on me.

Of course it's still a very good book, not only a filler, even though it's not as smoothly written as Farthing. I enjoyed the bits about the cross-casted Hamlet, I enjoyed to see a more private side of Carmichael as well as his interactions with Royston; their work-relationship is a bit strained after the Farthing case, but their dialogues are a delight. And, because I'm just that kind of person, I liked this terrible, terrible end – because it sets the scene for part #3 so nicely.