XyberTimes

Curious Bits From a Curious World

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Negative Thoughts: The Last Mortal Bond

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The Last Mortal Bond

Genre: Fantasy
Author: Brian Staveley
Year: 2016

The Last Mortal Bond is the final book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy. It is also the worst book in the series. Something was niggling at me when I started reading it and it didn’t take me long to figure out that my main problem with The Last Mortal Bond was the female characters in general and Adare specifically. The story makes it seem as though there can’t be a strong female character without having them be complete assholes and it tries so very hard to have the reader side with and relate with one of the villains.

The only major female character that wasn’t a complete ass in this series is an assassin priest devoted to the lord of death. When your only positive female character kills people as a religion your story telling is not going to have the desired effect. There was just a procession of women who, while immensely capable, couldn’t help but be complete and utter assholes. It’s tempting to write these personalities off as incidental, as though the author wasn’t quite sure how to portray strong female characters but the inclusion of the one female character who is both skilled and not an asshole makes it clear that for whatever reason these character flaws were intentional.

Adare is the biggest asshole of the bunch. As much as the story would like you to cheer for her she is both unlikable and incompetent. I place her on the side of the villains since she’s been trying to take the throne almost since the emperor’s death and even sides with the emperor’s murderer. She never acknowledges her brother as the rightful heir and does nothing to ascertain the condition of either of her brothers once it’s learned that they are missing. Adare’s story arc is a long list of hubris, mistakes and miscalculations. So much so that her chief adviser spends the majority of her lines telling Adare what an idiot she is. Like any good despot, rather than take the criticism and improve, Adare blames everyone else for her failures. Luckily, through several instances of the good ‘ole deus ex machina, everything works out.

I had high hopes for this series. The First book was fantastic. Book two was pretty dang good. The Last Mortal Bond was the lead weights you stuff into the pockets of shipwreck survivors as they’re trying to out-swim the sharks, interesting to see what happens but pretty messed up. The action is pretty good and the greater background story was genuinely interesting. Too bad it was all overshadowed by a bunch of assholes. Whenever the story would settle into a good rhythm it would get derailed by the story arcs of some genuinely detestable characters.

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Book Thoughts: The Imperial Radch Trilogy

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The Imperial Radch Trilogy

Genre: Sci-Fi
Author: Ann Leckie
Year: 2013, 2014, 2015

After first reading Ancillary Justice I wasn’t particularly impressed: The time jumps were a necessary but dull affair, the songs were something to be endured while offering insight into Breq’s personality, and there was a noticeable lack of pew pew (space combat). Being a completionist at heart, I didn’t really think anything about reading the other two books in the trilogy. I mean, why wouldn’t I? The story was competent enough so of course I would finish it out. After finishing the third book, Ancillary Mercy, I still wasn’t overly impressed but then I realized that I was overlooking something. The beauty of science fiction is in the worlds constructed and the thoughts invoked.

Something just kept tickling at the back of my mind after finishing this trilogy. I kept think that they weren’t the greatest things I’d ever read, but for some reason I just couldn’t stop thinking about them. It took me a while, but I finally figured out what Ann Leckie had done. You see, like any great sci-fi work, the universe created is as much a character in the story as any of the speakers present. Three aspects stand out as particularly significant: The AI’s governing stations and ships, the cloned Lord of the Radch, and ancillaries.

Let’s start with the ancillaries because I feel that a lot of people may not understand the full implications of the ancillary program or what it means for Radch society in general. Ancillaries are created using the bodies of conquered peoples. Corpse soldiers, undead, zombies, drones or cyborgs are all terms that can be applied to ancillaries in varying degrees. When the Radchaai conquer a planet they take a number of the native population and place them in cold storage to serve as shipboard ancillaries when needed. All Radchaai military vessels have crews composed in large parts of ancillary troops. When a vessel needs more ancillaries they thaw out one of the prisoners and, once they’re conscious, install the implants that allow them functionality as military units as well as connecting them to the ship mind. Once a person becomes an ancillary their mind is wiped and they become an extension of whichever ship they belong to.

Aside from being generally faster and tougher than their purely human counterparts aboard ship, the main draw to having an ancillary crewed vessel is their total obedience. You see, in the Radchaai military there is no excuse for refusing an order. The penalty for refusing an order is execution, there are no extenuating circumstances, no appeals or reprieves. This may sound overly harsh but it makes sense when you consider that the Radchaai empire covers hundreds of planets with a military counted in the millions. With so many people involved there will always be a few who attempt to buck the status quo no matter the how harsh the penalty. To keep a mechanism of this scale functioning there is no room for dissent and the ancillaries act as de facto representatives of imperial authority both by acting as avatars for ship AI’s and through their constant unwavering duty. The use of ancillaries acts as a subtle reminder and whispered threat to all human crew that they aren’t entirely necessary and can be quickly dispatched should they step out of line.

It’s important to remember that while ancillaries are capable of acting independently they are drones acting as the eyes, ears and hands of their respective ships. Make no mistake, the artificial intelligences (AI) that govern warships and space stations are fully realized personalities with their own likes, dislikes and quirks. Their programed purpose and safe guard programing is the only this that keeps these artificial minds from doing as they please. This is especially interesting when you think of the AI’s as the gate keepers for the empire. They live longer, they have flawless memory, they are near omnipresent, and they are basically incorruptible. Imagine a government operating under a perfect memory of what its framers intended with no need to argue the finer points because you could simple ask. Crime is a fool’s gambit since the AI’s see everything that happens within their domain and one of their primary mandates includes for the well-being of their occupants. The combination of realized personalities plus the hard coded need to protect their humans makes for fiercely protective almost maternal AI’s. This just adds to the stability of the empire since, like any mother, the AI’s are willing to let the people make their own personal mistakes but won’t allow for a wholesale disruption of the proverbial household.

The final piece of our societal puzzle comes from the Lord of the Radch herself. Anaander Mianaai heads the Radchaai Empire in all manners whether they be judicial, military, religious or civil. How does one person keep an empire of hundreds of planets and billions of citizens together in relative peace for thousands of years? Well two of the methods we’ve talked about: the ancillary program and strict military discipline, and the AI personalities that govern warships and space stations. Continuity is another tool used to keep this society stable, and a great way to ensure continuity under an imperial system is to make sure of the line of succession. Anaander Mianaai solved this particular issue by cloning herself and transferring her memories from clone to clone. This ensures an almost perfect continuity of rule because, for all intents and purposes, the same person is sitting at the reins of power century after century back to the first founding of the empire. A clone program also solves the problem of managing such a large empire as the Lord of the Radch is not confined to any one location so doesn’t have to wait for news from the furthest reaches of the empire. If she had been confined to one body Anaander Mianaai would necessarily have to dilute her power by appointing people to strategically important positions. These people may be good, bad, competent or fools. That’s the risk a single body ruler would have to take, but the Lord of the Radch has other options. If you’re making clones of yourself anyway, why not dispatch them to important parts of the empires. In this way you have a local center of power under the control of someone trustworthy. What could be a more perfect system?

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Book Thoughts: The Three-Body Problem

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The Three-Body Problem

Genre: Sci-Fi
Author: Cixin Liu
Year: 2008 Released as a book, English translation released 2014

I really don’t understand the overwhelming love some people have for The Three-Body Problem. It is an okay book. There’s nothing particularly terrible about it, but there’s nothing great about it either. The bones of a great story are there, poking from just beneath the surface, but it never materializes as it is constantly being buried under unnecessary details. I’m no stranger to dense Sci-Fi being a fan of David Brin and Peter F. Hamilton, but this book is a far cry from those in both story structure and science content. As an alternate history story it reads more like an episode of the X-files, and I don’t mean one of the good episodes.
Out of all the characters introduced in this book only a couple matter. Yes, I understand that seems like a bold statement. The myriad of characters introduced do very little to advance the story and are mainly included as a means of fleshing out motivations. Half of them only appear in Ye Wenjie’s past and are all dead in the books present time period. The other half have been introduced through their interactions with Wang Miao. These interactions fall into two categories; “This person may know more you should talk to them.” And “What are these mysterious people talking about.” And then there are aliens.

The book starts during China’s Cultural Revolution during which Ye Wenjie’s father, a physicist and professor, is killed for not conforming to the new ideology. Her sister, a high school student and Red Guard member, is killed in the inter faction fighting and her mother commits suicide out of guilt for supporting the revolutionary authorities. Ye Wenjie decides to take a position in a worker’s camp far from any of the political centers and works with a logging team trying to put behind her everything that happened to her family. While on the logging team she meets a man and gets caught up in some politics. This leads to her working in a top secret military communications base where she hooks up with a former student of her fathers, and they later marry. While at the base Ye Wenjie intercepts an alien signal and responds to it in secret. She pledges to help the aliens, the Trisolarans, in taking over the Earth since she feels all the worlds governments are corrupt. It takes several chapters, many flashback sequences, and walls of text to get this much information out of The Three-Body Problem.

Wang Miao is a nanotechnology researcher who gets dragged into the story because his research could be dangerous to the Trisolaran invasion and he has a tentative connection to a member of the secret society attempting to lay the foundation for the alien arrival. He spends most of his time playing a computer game titled, you guessed it, The Three-Body Problem. Upon solving the mystery of the game Wang Miao is invited to join the elites of the secret society and learns the truth about the aliens and their invasion plans. He learns about Ye Wenjie’s background, the secret military communications base, and the strange artificial intelligence the aliens have sent to Earth. All of this could be told in a much more concise manner than is managed.

Finishing this book was quite a task. I just could not bring myself to care about most of the discussion or the characters. At the end of the day it made no difference to me whether or not they all died as they were either generally unlikable or so shallow as to not be missed. The aliens were somewhat interesting and to think that there is a secret organization working to pave the way for extraterrestrial invasion was compelling, but the execution was lacking. It’s tempting to blame this on translation issues, but that would not excuse the story or lack thereof. The author seemed preoccupied on the Cultural Revolution and how it was so terrible that of course this person would rather have aliens take over the world. This led to very little time spent on the sci-fi premise of this book. All of the relevant background for Ye Wenjie could have been covered in a few pages, but instead we get her biography and a few pages on the alien invasion. Out of the entire three hundred plus pages of this book the most interesting thing was the fact that you can weigh unknown objects in order to determine whether or not they are nuclear bombs.

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Queen of Fire: A Raven’s Shadow Novel

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Genre: Fantasy
Author: Anthony Ryan
Year: 2015

Queen of Fire is the last book in the Ravens Shadow series, and it was a bit of a letdown. Blood Song was a great book told from the points of view of Vaelin Al Sorna and the chronicler Verniers Alishe Someren with action, drama, and depth in characters. For Tower Lord Anthony Ryan relegates Vaelin and Verniers to supporting characters. They both wind up playing crucial rules but their stories are given short shrift by the inclusion of several other characters. Throughout Blood Song there is an undercurrent regarding prophecy and the role to be played by Vaelin in an unknown future conflict. This tone is continued in both Tower Lord and Queen of Fire but for whatever reason Ryan decides to give Vaelin fewer and fewer pages.

An Argument could be made that all of these shifting points of view are necessary to get a more complete picture of the overall story line. Unfortunately the precedent set by Blood Song was for a predominately one point of view narrative. It was a good formula that allowed the reader to uncover the story along with Vaelin. With the increase in the cast of characters there was an increase in the flow of information but no corresponding clarification. As the story progresses there are more clues and bits of prophecy regarding the critical role that Vaelin will play in the final conflict, but it is all overshadowed by having to slog through all the other stories. Every revelation and plot twist that should be a ground shaking event is merely a footnote thanks to the inclusion of all the differing points of view.

With all of the story packed into Queen of Fire it still left the impression that there was a book missing between it and Tower Lord. There were numerous instances where, especially with the personal relationships, it felt as though big chunks of story were missing. An intimate moment between two characters doesn’t quite work when you have no background to frame the relationship. Ryan should have spent the time to build these various relationships or just cut them out altogether. Personally I would have preferred it if he had cut the bloat, but what’s done is done. Ultimately The Ravens Shadow is a flawed series, but I hope Anthony Ryan learns from the experience of putting out these books and comes back with something truly magnificent.

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Armada

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Genre: SciFi
Author: Ernest Cline
Year: 2015
Would Own In Paper: Yes

“Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?”

One can’t help but to draw comparison between Armada and Ready Player One. Armada is a fine book in its own right but it didn’t flow as nicely as RPO and the pop culture references felt a bit forced without the lead-in exposition that readers got from RPO. In Ready Player One the general population’s obsession with 80’s pop culture stems from the hunt for the Egg, a connective foundation missing from Armada which makes the fan boy interactions between some of the characters awkward to read. A bit more development from protagonist Zack Lightman would have made the entire story that much more compelling as well. Tell us about these anger management issues he’s struggling with. Why should we care that he got in some trouble in middle school? Show us his struggle to overcome his internal demons with more depth than the limp love story we got shoehorned instead. Overall Armada is a good read if not great, just keep in mind that it is not a sequel to Ready Player One and doesn’t even share a universe with it.