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Bookends: Tracking Reality back to the Source April 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Science Fiction, thriller, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Tracking Reality back to the Source

By Dan Davidson

December 13, 2017

– 718 words –

Savior's Game

By Sean Chercover

Thomas & Mercer

272 pages

$10.49

There are lots of disadvantages to coming in on the third volume of a trilogy. From the clues in this book, it appears that in The Trinity Game andThe Devil’s Game, Daniel Byrne, a former investigator for a secret Branch of the Vatican, in charge of authenticating miracles, has undergone a crisis of faith. After debunking 721 such events over a ten-year period, case number 722 turned out to be something different.

It involved Daniel’s uncle, an ecclesiastical con man named Tim Trinity who called himself a Reverend, and who suddenly began to manifest actual precognitive powers. Eventually these seem to be accounted for by a mysterious mental virus, which causes people to have visions and eventually become mad and catatonic. They call it the Plague.

This problem continues into book two, which introduces a couple of secret organizations. Daniel is recruited by the Foundation to work against the Council, which seems to have plans for world domination, but eventually decides to take matters into his own hands and eliminate the Council’s chief agent. Along the way, he began experiencing some of the symptoms of the Plague, beginning with what he believes to be auditory hallucinations.

Along with the doctor who had assisted him in the second book he drops out of sight, changes his name, and seeks to understand what might be happening to him. By the time we join the story in book three, he and his partner have had to separate to remain hidden, and Daniel has begun to have visions to go with the voices he has been hearing.

He learns, from his previous allies in the Foundation, that the Plague, which they have renamed AIT (Anomalous Information Transfer) is spreading, and that thousands have been infected, more each week.

Gaining some level of control over his visions, he finds himself able to visit what seems to be an alternate reality, one in which things seem to be more real than the reality he has always known. He meets the woman who goes with the voice he has been hearing and learns that this other place had been experiencing a population growth that matches the spread of AIT.

Visitors refer to the place as the Source. This used to be a friendly place, but lately it has come to be dominated by one individual, who has a vast amount of the “magical” energies (teleportation, other mental abilities, manifestation of objects and food, among other things) that every one seems to possess to some degree in this place.

This individual has used his abilities to create a massive tower, and seems to have enslaved most of the other visitors to the place, using their – I almost want to write “worship”, though that’s not quite the right term. They are in an addictive, meditative state.

This man has come to think of himself as a god-like being, and he intends to harness the power of AIT to extend his control from the Source into the real world, which he considers to be just a pale facsimile of the world he controls.

Daniel has to come up with ways to survive in both worlds, stop the AIT plague which threatens to overtake most of humanity, and stop a plot to plunge the world into a devastating conflict which will further the plans of the being who calls himself Noah.

From what I’ve written you’ll get the impression that this is an oddly shaped book, one which partakes of some features of the action thriller genre, while other parts seem more akin with something out of Dr. Strange. To some degree there’s a touch of the Matrix here, or that Christopher Nolan film, Inception.

From the Amazon.ca descriptions of the first two books (which I admit to mining for this review), I would venture that they have far less of the mumbo-jumbo/alternate reality flavour than does this final volume. If this whole story line intrigues you, might want to pick up used or Kindle editions of the first two books (available for around $2 each). I got enough out of book three to be content without doing that.

 

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Bookends: Adventures in Alternate Realities March 17, 2018

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Bookends: Adventures in Alternate Realities

By Dan Davidson

October 25, 2017

– 786 words –

 

The Bloodline Feud: A Merchant Princes Omnibus

Bloodline Feud

 

By Charles Stross

Tor Books

Kindle edition

$10.99

576 pages in book form

 

Miriam Beckstein was an up and coming tech journalist with an eye for a story on the day she and her research assistant stumbled on something they shouldn’t have and both got fired. It was while she was sorting out what to do with her life that her adopted mother gave her a box of family keepsakes and totally changed her life in another way.

n the box was a locket with a strange engraved pattern on it, and when Miriam stared at it she suddenly found herself and her home office chair in the middle of a forest in a very different place.

The combination of the pattern and her genetic heritage had unlocked her ability to travel to another world, physically like ours, but with a very different history and social structure, where it turned out that she was a related to an extended family, some of whom were not happy to see her.

In addition to all this, she has to figure out how to survive when it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill her.

Miriam is actually Countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth, missing since the disappearance of her mother, decades earlier. That she is not dead inconveniences a number of the members of her clan family, who are involved in what amounts to an interdimensional smuggling ring. Family members with the talent for world walking are able to flit back and forth between our world and the technologically and socially backward earth (think Medieval level) that is their home, and have enriched themselves in bot wealth and power by so doing.

Miriam has to learn a whole new social order and a new language, master the mechanics of her new position in life and try to survive attempts by two different groups to end her life. It is while accomplishing the latter task that she learns something no one else seems to know, that there is another group of travellers who originate on a third alternative earth, one that is sort of a 19th century version of North America called New Britain.

The six families of the Clan are the power behind the throne in Gruinmarkt, the world that Miriam was conceived in, but there is a seventh family, lost to the others sometime in the past, that is waging a clandestine war of revenge. They live in the third earth.

Miriam’s adventures take place in all three dimensions, and involve, unusually for a science fiction novel, a lot of discussion about how to run businesses and economies. I know how that sounds, but Stross makes it interesting. Further, his work of fictional economics is admired by no less than renowned economist Paul Krugman. I watched the two of them in discussion at a World Con in Montreal a few years back, and their mutual admiration was obvious.

This volume is a omnibus edition of The Family Trade (2004) and

The Hidden Family (2005). It’s been revised slightly with once necessary recaps and reviews removed and some material added. The new edition is seamless and I really couldn’t tell where the first book ended and the second began.

The “stranger in a strange land” story is one of the effective ways of easing a reader from the world we know into stranger places. This story begins as a kind of “lost princess” tale, and we identify with Miriam as she struggles to both adjust and get the upper hand in her new circumstances.

She is very much a 21st century woman, and in Gruinmarkt, which has a sort of Germanic/Dutch feel to it, the status of women is very low, their lives controlled by their fathers and husbands, or, in Miriam’s case, her uncle. The clan hierarchy have absolute power over the areas they control. They live in comparative luxury whole ordinary folks live like serfs in the Middle Ages. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is that incredible.

Miriam sets herself the task of transforming the societies of both alternate realities by importing old technology from the world she grew up in, and changing the business model of Gruinmarkt, which has devolved to profiting from interdimensional drug smuggling, to one based on trade in ideas.

It’s an uphill battle and one that’s just beginning as this book comes to an end.

In his author’s note at the end, Stross credits a couple of SF giants of the past with influencing some of his choices in this series. I’m going to deal with one of them next week.

 

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Bookends: Some Adventures on the Road to Glory March 1, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Robert Heinlein, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: Some Adventures on the Road to GloryGlory Road 1

By Dan Davidson

September 20, 2017

– 945 words

 

Glory Road

Written by: Robert A. Heinlein

Narrated by: Bronson Pinchot

Length: 9 hrs and 34 mins

Blackstone Audio, Inc.

$23.07

320 pages in paperback or hard cover

available in 43 different formats, including e-books

 

As the 1950s rolled over into the 60s, Robert Heinlein produced three quite different novels, each of which shared some common themes. Starship Troopers seemed to glorify the military life. Stranger in a Strange Land suggested that making love was better than making war, and became a kind of hippie bible for some of my friends. Then there was Glory Road, which was the SF grandmaster’s earliest approach to a fantasy novel. There were fantasy elements, and even horror, in some of his earlier short stories, but he tended to stick to straight science fiction until his last half dozen books.

In common with Troopers, it has a soldier as its protagonist, but he has none of the gung-ho enthusiasm of that novel. E.C. “Scar” Gordon served his time in Viet Nam for the express purpose of being able to use the GI Bill to finance his education later on, only to discover, when he was discharged, that this war had never been officially declared so that option didn’t apply. It did, later on, but by then Gordon had left the planet.

It is while he is living in France, using up some of his accumulated leave before going home to the USA, that he meets the woman he would come to call Star, and finds himself recruited for a mission that is literally out of this world. He is hired to be her champion. The first 56 pages of the book lead up to the moment that he and Star, along with a strange little fellow name Rufo, leave the Earth.

The next 150 pages are the adventurous portion of the novel, involving a number of battles, Oscar’s difficulties in dealing with otherworldly customs and morays, some monsters and a clutch of dragons. Some of this is quite funny. Some of it seemed quite risqué when I first read it back in 1966, but seems extremely tame now. RAH would get to be much more explicit 20 years or so later.

Apparently, the original publishers would have liked to have had the book end at the point where the quest (for it was that sort of story) came to an end, but Heinlein had other ideas: thoughts about relationships; an examination of duty and human nature, an expansion of Arthur Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology might as well be called magic; and a running commentary about all the things that he really didn’t like about the society he had grown up in.

So the last 80 pages or so mark, for me, anyway, the beginning of the “Heinlein as philosopher” part of his career, where there were a lot of conversations about this and that, and there was usually some “wise old man” character on hand to puncture everyone else’s illusions. Much to my surprise, this turns out to be Rufo in this book.

Glory Road foreshadows those later books, and introduces the notion of the multi-verse which is key in his last novels. Indeed, the character of Star, who turns out to be someone even more impressive than our narrator, Scar, thought she was, would go on to make a cameo appearance in RAH’s next to last novel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

The last chapter bookends the novel, taking Oscar back to Earth, where he tries very hard to fit in, finds, ultimately, that he cannot, and embarks on some other version of the Glory Road, returning to his happiest identity as a knight-errant.

One of the reasons why this last section of the book matters is that it is made clear just exactly how long and to what degree, the young E.C. Gordon was groomed, almost from birth, to become the man who would answer the strange newspaper and magazine ad that sent him on his way. That it would describe him perfectly turns out to be no accident.

“Are you a coward? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, 17 rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, apt. D.”

Scar, or “Os-car”, as Star calls him, cannot be anything but the man described in that paragraph, and he is no longer suited for the quiet life once the adventure is over.

This book is wonderfully narrated by an actor named Bronson Pinchot, who captures perfectly the voices of our narrator, Oscar, and the two other central characters, while still having vocal space for the others who are less important. All the way through the book Rufo refers to Star as H-h-her and Sh-sh-she, and I wondered why until I dug out my 1966 paperback edition and discovered that her pronouns were almost always in italics when he said them.

Finally, the book is full of witty little aphorisms, and this one probably says a lot about the ideas behind the story: “The person who says smugly that good manners are the same everywhere and people are just people hasn’t been farther out of Podunk than the next whistle stop.”
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Bookends: Beating back against the Apocalypse March 1, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Science Fiction, Uncategorized, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Beating back against the Apocalypse

By Dan Davidson

Fuller MemorandumSeptember 11, 2017

– 749 words –

 

The Fuller Memorandum

By Charles Stross

Ace

320 pages

Kindle edition: $8.99

 

 

This is how Bob Howard warns us not to read this book.

“This is the story of how I lost my atheism, and why I wish I could regain it. This is the story of the people who lost their lives in an alien desert bathed by the hideous radiance of a dead sun, and the love that was lost and the terror that wakes me up in a cold sweat about once a week, clawing at the sheets with cramping fingers and drool on my chin. It’s why Mo and I aren’t living together right now, why my right arm doesn’t work properly, and why I’m toiling late into the night, trying to bury the smoking wreckage of my life beneath a heap of work.”

Bob, an agent name picked for its resemblance to the writer Robert E, Howard, creator of Conan, and member of the Lovecraft circle of American fantasy writers, is an agent in an arcane branch of the British Secret Service which is known as The Laundry. It deals in sorcery and magic or, as Bob prefers to term it, a branch of applied mathematics.

You don’t apply to join the Laundry; you get drafted (or killed) after you’ve accidentally almost done something very dangerous with numbers, generally (these days) involving the use of a computer, although such things have been done in the past without them.

Stross’s Laundry novels are what happens when eldritch fantasy of the Cthulhu type gets dumped into a literary blender with various sorts of spy/thriller fiction. Each one is a little different than the one before it, with the ghosts of assorted spy master authors from Green to Fleming and others lurking between the lines. In addition there’s always a healthy dose of bureaucratic spoofing of the “Yes Minister” or Farley Mowat (the first chapters of Never Cry Wolf) variety.

As a 21st century sort of magician, Bob carries a loaded PDA around with him instead of a grimoire, with incantations pre-inscribed and ready to cast at the push of a button. About midway through he has to replace it and trades up for a tremendously amusing spoof of a certain Apple product. At the office, he’s sort of the local IT expert, but he’s also a field agent, as is his wife, Mo.

While Bob is more of a traditional magic user, Mo is bonded to a particularly powerful demon that appears in our reality as a bone white violin. When she plays it, with bleeding fingers, spells are cast and, generally, nasty people die.

This book is partly about what happens when Mo’s work follows her home. She’s been on an assignment. Imagine something like Israel taking out an Iranian nuclear facility, only make it an attempt to breach the protective walls that are keeping some proto-nasty beings from crossing over into our dimension. They used to rule here, and they’d like to come back. Mo put an end to that, but the human agency working with them decides to take its revenge back in London.

It doesn’t work, but the implications are bad. To get to Bob and Mo and pass the wards around their home implies inside knowledge, which means the Laundry has been infiltrated – again. On top of this, Angleton, Bob’s top boss and the head of the agency, vanishes, after sending Bob off on a routine sounding investigation that turns out to be anything but.

As a result, an apparently innocent human being is killed in an eldritch burst of power. Bob is held responsible for this and placed on kind of administrative leave, pending a review of his actions – kind of like a police officer being investigated for having discharged a firearm.

This leads Bob to the question of the existence of a document called the Fuller Memorandum, which outlines how a extremely powerful entity, with the lovely name of The Eater of Souls, was bound into symbiosis with a human agent, and how, if the bad guys in this story manage to gain control of this being, they could invite all the elder gods to come and sample the buffet on planet earth.

Bob’s job – on leave pending an Audit or not – is to figure out just what the ungodly have in mind and prevent it from happening. It is a tale with many twists and turns, no small amount of sarcastic humour, and moments of both sheer terror and tenderness. I highly recommend the series.

 

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Bookends: The Saga of Mr. Mercedes Comes to a Suitable End February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, mystery, Science Fiction, thriller, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: The Saga of Mr. Mercedes Comes to a Suitable End

By Dan DavidsonEnd of wATCH

July 10, 2017

– 888 words.

 

End of Watch

By Stephen King

Scribner

$14.16 (paperback)

$10.99 (Kindle)

448 pages

 

In at least one previous book, Rage, first published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, Stephen King described a high school shooting spree. He wrote it in the early 1970s and it was published in 1977, before such things became nearly annual horror shows. Not surprisingly, there were people, who want to blame this sort of behaviour on anything other than the vast American home arsenals just waiting to be misused, who blamed the book for inspiring such atrocities. In response, King allowed the novel to go out of print.

I have to hope that the Bill Hodges trilogy won’t meet the same fate. End of Watch brings the Hodges saga to a satisfying conclusion, but adds a touch of the paranormal that was not present in Mr. Mercedes or Finders Keepers, both of which were pretty much mundane mysteries with a touch of the thriller genre mixed in.

It’s the set-up sequence in each novel that might give the books a bad reputation. In each of the books, people are dealing the ramifications of Brady Hartsfield’s decision to steal a lonely woman’s Mercedes automobile and drive it into the midst of a large group of victims waiting in line for a chance at a job fair.

We have recently had a spate of these activities in England, France and other European countries, but I don’t think you can blame them on King. He didn’t invent the idea. There were such cases in he USA, and at least one in Canada, before he wrote the first book.

The killings in the book were inspired by an actual event which had taken place at a McDonald’s restaurant. King ramped up the body count and spent quite a bit of the book guiding us through the mad mind of the killer, who followed up his original evil deed by taunting the poor woman whose car he had used until she killed herself.

His big mistake was going on to taunt former homicide detective Hodges, who had been unable to solve the case before he retired. Energized by the attack conducted by telephone and e-mail trickery, Hodges, along with some young associates, does solve the case, and Hartsfield is institutionalized with brain damage as a result.

The book won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award in 2015.

Finders Keepers ,which is the name of Hodges’ private eye practice, goes off in an entirely different direction, but still deals with people whose lives were impacted (sorry, couldn’t resist) by the original crime, which is recapped from a different point of view in the opening chapter.

End of Watch returns to the villain of the first book, whose brain has been altered by the events of his capture, and by some very unethical experiments that one of the doctors tending him has been conducting. Hartsfield slowly discovers he has the ability to project his consciousness into the mind of a person who has been slightly hypnotized by a certain frequency of flashing lights. Eventually he is able to control such persons – first a slow witted hospital orderly, and eventually the doctor – and walk around using them as his meat puppets.

Add to this the discovery that a certain brand of defective hand-held video games can emit this frequency, lure victims to log on to a special website, and thus extend his reach beyond his sick room, and Hartsfield is ready to take his revenge on the people who stopped him when he attempted to be a suicide at a boy band rock concert several years earlier. He arranges to buy up a stock of the units and us them to target people who are connected to Hodges and his young friends, people who were his immediate targets at that concert. There is a sudden spate of suicides and it takes a while for Hodges to make the connection.

Hodge is distracted by the fact that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While he does not want to die, having found fulfillment in his new career, he is more worried about his autistic partner, Holly, who has blossomed so much while working with him.

He has always suspected that there was more to Hartsfield than the seeming vegetable in that hospital bed, but getting anyone else to think seriously about his suspicions is an uphill battle. Finally his old partner does offer some encouragement, but even that is limited. By this time Hartsfield has left his original body, which dies, and is fully in the mind and body of the neurosurgeon whose unethical use of drugs has boosted his powers of telepathy and telekinesis.

Hartsfield’s attempts to draws Hodges into his plot so he can mind control him as he has done his other victims backfire in the same way as in the first book, but with far more terminal results.

The title has a number of possible meanings, and most of the ones I can think of fit the story well. So, I do hope the books don’t do out of print, and this is a trilogy that make a good set of movies.

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Bookends: The Great Lorenzo’s Role of a Lifetime February 16, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Science Fiction, Uncategorized, Whitehorse Star.
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Double Star audiobookBookends: The Great Lorenzo’s Role of a Lifetime

By Dan Davidson

June 28, 2017

– 821 words –

 

Double Star

Written by Robert A. Heinlein

Narrated by Tom Weiner

Unabridged Audiobook

5 hrs and 31 mins

Blackstone Audio Inc.

$20.97

 

Print version: 240 pages

Gollancz

$15.99

 

Imagine a world and time when a ham actor of dubious morals could become the leader of an interplanetary government, elected supreme minister to the Emperor of this system.

Oh well, given the current state of affairs south of our border, maybe it’s not such a fantastic idea any more, but it was in the mid 1950s, when Double Star was being serialized as a novel in Astounding Science Fiction, and later published between hard covers and finally in paperback, where small print squeezed 240 pages into the 128 pages that I read back in 1969 and still have on my shelves.

Science fiction fandom was impressed, and voted the book the Hugo Award as best Novel of the year for 1956. It remains a classic and its most recent paperback incarnation was as part of Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” series.

When we meet Larry Smith (aka the Great Lorenzo) he is on his uppers on Earth, with hardly the price of a cup of coffee to his name. He is engaged by a spacer named Dak Broadbent to serve as a body double for an important man who is indisposed, for mysterious reasons.

As it turns out, the mysterious reason is that John Joseph Bonforte, the former Supreme Minister and leader of the opposition in the Imperial government, has been kidnapped. There is an important ceremony – a nest adoption – on Mars, that Bonforte absolutely has to attend, even if they can’t locate and free him before then.

By the time he knows all of this, Smith is on his way to Mars, having been smuggled off planet, and it’s too late to back out. It’s by appealing to his vanity as an actor that Bonforte’s aides get him to continue, but a funny thing happens.

The more he absorbs his subject, the more he watches videos of him and listens to his speeches, the more he reads about him and tries to copy him, the more he becomes Bonforte.

The Martian ceremony is a success, and not long after that they manage to find the missing man, but the Bonforte they find has been horribly abused and shot full of mind altering drugs. Larry is persuaded to carry on until the great man can recover his wits and health. He continues out of a sense of obligation (a new thing for him) and applies himself to the task by continually asking himself “what would Bonforte do?”

Weiner’s reading of the text was important to my understanding of what was happening to Lorenzo/Larry. When I first heard this first person narrator I didn’t like his voice. It wasn’t my memory of the book which, granted, was 48 years old. Interestingly, the voice changed as Larry did.

Larry learns how to be Bonforte so well that he starts improving on the speeches he’s being handed by his scriptwriters, applying his actor’s sensibility to his increasing knowledge of his subject and model. He does so well in this department that one of his broadcast speeches causes the incumbent government to call for an election and resign, forcing Bonforte’s party to form an interim caretaker government.

As Bonforte has still not recovered – has had a stroke, in fact – Larry is forced to continue with masquerade and does so by being true to his “what would Bonforte do?” dictum.

This leads to some friction within the group and the departure of one member. That man, Bill, becomes a dangerous loose cannon who could expose the entire substitution plot, which had been his idea in the first place. He had expected Larry to continue to be a ventriloquist’s dummy, and when it doesn’t work out that way, when Larry starts questioning his interpretations of the Bonforte legacy, he decides to scuttle the operation. The tension is delicious.

While there’s a thriller aspect to this book, and there is also a political drama, the real story is about a man learning to improve himself more than he ever thought he could, or, as Theodore Sturgeon, Heinlein’s SF contemporary liked to phrase it, this is a story about “a man who learns better.”

The book has a coda, written a quarter century later by the man who lived most of his existence wearing another man’s life, and becoming more like that man with every year. He is unsparing in his assessment of the Great Lorenzo, though he does recognize that without the talents of “that seedy actor” he could never have managed to live up to the task he set himself.

Larry Smith was improved by his elevation to high office and his understanding of what behavior was required to be worthy of it. We could only wish that this would be true of a certain American president.

 

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Bookends: Considering Free Will in a Murder Investigation February 14, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Considering Free Will in a Murder Investigation

By Dan DavidsonRule 34

May 16, 2017

– 923 words –

 

Rule 34

By Charles Stross

Ace Books,

336 pages

$8.99

Rule 34 is set in the same futuristic Scotland (a more or less independent nation) that Stross used for Halting State, the first book set in this milieu, but about five years later and with a different cast of characters.

It uses the same narrative structure. There are half a dozen second-person present-tense viewpoints that rotate the story around a series of murders.

Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh is one of these characters, and the one initially most concerned with the killings. She is the first to realize that, unconnected as the victims may be, there is a thread, a very obscure thread, in the means that ties them all together. The two or three she views, have all been killed by malfunctioning appliances that contain computer chips.

When it turns out that there are more of these, some in other countries, and that the body count is well over a dozen within a few days, she concludes, and manages to persuade her superiors, that some sort of coordinated murder spree is under way.

We are some time putting all this together, because we have to cycle through several other narratives, several times, before we hear enough of Liz’s thoughts (these are very internal narratives) to see the pattern.

Like many a Scots detective (Rebus is cited several times), Liz’s personal life is s total mess and her thought processes are disrupted several times by the arrival in town of an old lover, Dorothy, who has her own problems to share.

In the meantime we meet Anwar, a small time crook on probation who is trying to make ends meet and stay out of trouble. Anwar is that oddity, a married Muslim with a straight family (wife and kids) who carries on a number of homosexual liaisons in seedy bars, and imbibes quite often in spite of the Islamic laws about drinking alcohol. He becomes the onsite diplomatic attaché for a small, breakaway Slavic nation that is involved in some sort of financial scam, of which he is unaware. He is the comic relief in this book.

We meet the Toymaker, a multi-identitied agent of some sort who is in Scotland for nefarious purposes. He is somewhat psychotic when off his meds, and frustrated in accomplishing his task in that it seems that all the people he has been supposed to do business with are being murdered before he can work with them.

Ah-hah, we say to ourselves. A connection, though it’s uncertain as to what.

Not quite half-way through the book we encounter some other viewpoints, including one which is that of the organization (the Operation) which employs the Toymaker. There is also Felix, the chief aid of the president of the quasi-nation that employs Anwar. Another is Kemal, the European “spam-cop” who specializes in computer fraud and is assigned to travel to Scotland to assist in what has become an international murder case.

There’s an Internet meme that runs this way: “Rule 34—If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions.”

In this case we might substitute “corruption” for “porn”. Given what we have learned about Internet monitoring, government snooping and electronic surveillance, it might not seem as surprising today as it did when Stross published the hardcover edition of this book back in 2011, that something might go wrong.

In this case it seems that an advanced spam filter program might have gone off the rails and started organizing the deaths of people who might, perhaps, be involved in some sort of nefarious activity. It’s using an advanced form of the algorithms that Amazon and Facebook use to decide what ads to show us and what things we might like to buy.

Philip K. Dick wrote a short story decades ago in which psychic precognitives were used to do much the same sort of thing. It became the movie called “Minority Report” and the short-lived television spin-off of the same name.

This book delves into some of the same territory, while raising the possibility that an evolving artificial intelligence code named ATHENA might not hesitate to manipulate individuals in order to bring about what it considers to be a satisfactory solution to a problem that only it has resources enough to analyze.

This is likely the last of the Halting State series, unfortunately. Stross has written about why in an essay on his blog, Charlie’s Diary.

“I really wanted to make it a trilogy, you know? I mean, what could be cooler than a trilogy of near-future Scottish police procedurals about crimes that don’t exist yet, written in multi-viewpoint second person?

“At this point, I’m clutching my head. ‘Halting State’ wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

“The science fictional universe of Halting State and Rule 34 is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for Rule 34; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.”

So there it is. Enjoy this one until he figures out some why to get beyond our rapidly evolving digital reality.

 

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Bookends: Coming to Terms With a Moral Dilemma February 8, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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Bookends: Coming to Terms With a Moral DilemmaGateway

By Dan Davidson

February 22, 2017

– 791 words –

 

Gateway

By Frederick Pohl

Narrated by Oliver Wyman

Introduction by Robert J. Sawyer

8 hrs and 37 mins

Audible Studios

288 pages in hard copy

$21.95

 

 

I don’t re-read too many books, but with the advent of audio books and lots of long distance driving, I’ve taken to re-hearing books that I first read years ago.

Gateway is a tour de force by the late Frederick Pohl. It won all the major best novel awards in the science fiction world: the Hugo Award (basically a peoples’ choice award); the Nebula Award (voted on by writers in the field); and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, which is more than fitting since Pohl was also a great editor in his day.

In his enthusiastic introduction to this audio book, former Berton House Writer Robert J. Sawyer (who has also won all these awards) explains the importance of these accolades and tells you why Gateway is his all time favorite SF novel.

After nearly 40 years my memory of the story wasn’t sharp, and so there were a lot of pleasant surprises.

At novel length Pohl first made his mark as a sort of SF satirist, and some of that shows up in one of the two strands of this first person narrative. Robinette Broadhead (who insists he is a man, in spite of what his mother named him) is a troubled individual. We know this because we first meet him when he is deep in a psychotherapy session with a very patient and somewhat drool artificial intelligence whom he calls Sigfrid Von Shrink.

Bob, Rob, or Robbie (he gets all of these), grew up on a very impoverished, very crowded planet Earth, where he worked in the shale mines, extracting hydrocarbons from rock (impressive forecasting here), not to burn as fuel, but to turn into nutrients for a hungry planet.

Planet Earth hasn’t done too well in terms of getting people into space, and might not have been able to do anything if they had not discovered leftover traces of a long vanished alien race they call the Heechee. They left habitable tunnels on Venus and Mars and, more importantly, the Gateway asteroid, filled with hundreds of self-guiding spaceships in a variety of sizes.

When Rob wins a lottery, he uses the money to travel to Gateway in hopes of becoming one of the successful prospectors. These men and women ride those ships out and back, and sometimes find Heechee artifacts that can be reverse engineered for human use, even if humanity has so far been unable to figure out how the ships work. One such device is called a p-phone, something that reads very much like today’s smartphones, only more so.

Much of the book is taken up with life on Gateway and with Rob trying to work up the courage to actually join a launch crew and take a trip. The odds are not that good, he learns. Some ships never return; some come back with bodies; some come back with crazy people; some come back alive, but without any profit gained.

Alternate chapters take us through Rob’s time on the asteroid and on three trips that he finally does make on the unpredictable Heechee ships. We also spend a lot of time on his interactions with others, especially on his growing love affair with Klara, a woman who grew up on Venus.

Now, we know from the sessions with Sigfrid that Rob ultimately survives all these hardships, and ends up fabulously wealthy as a result of his final trip. The therapy sessions are years later, when he is still trying to cope with the emotional fallout of some catastrophic event that occurred when he was younger. We have a clear sense that he’s been chasing sensation and temporary liaisons ever since in an effort to numb his conscience – but we don’t know why.

So the tension in the book comes from our need to know about Rob’s emotional and spiritual damage rather than his physical jeopardy. However, Pohl tells both parts of the story so well that you sometimes forget not to worry.

When the story starts there is tendency to view the Sigrid sessions as a bit of comic relief from Rob’s grim life story, but as the book progresses, the two strands take on equal weight and, in the end, the final climax comes in the therapy room.

This was intended as a standalone novel, but ended up being the first of four books. There were some possibilities for more work in this universe and Pohl was persuaded to spin them out.

The reading, by Oliver Wyman, was extremely well done.

 

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Bookends: Game of Thrones Goes off the Main Track February 8, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, fantasy, Science Fiction, Uncategorized.
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A Feast For Crows

Bookends: Game of Thrones Goes off the Main Track

By Dan Davidson

February 1, 2017

– 916 words –

 

A Feast for Crows

(A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4)

by George R,R, Martin

Random House of Canada

947 pages

$10.99

 

In a postscript for A Feast for Crows, George Martin admits quite frankly that the story got away from him and he probably became a bit too intrigued with some of the secondary characters in his expanding cast. So he and his publisher, knowing they could count on scads of sales any way, broke the book in half. This book and number 5, A Dance with Dragons, take place within the same time frame, and deal with different members of the cast.

If you want to know how Jon Snow is making out back at the Wall, you’ll have to wait until you get to book 5, because Samwell Tarly is about the only member of the Night’s Watch you will follow in this book, and he’s on a quest that takes him away from that place. Jon is mentioned only in terms of his early interaction with Sam.

We do follow two other members of the Stark family, Sansa and Arya, but they spend a lot of their time being other people. Sansa has been taken in hand by Littlefinger (Lord Petyr Baelish), perhaps to save her from the machinations of Queen Cersei, or perhaps for Littlefinger’s own devious ends. She is not using her own name and pretends to be his daughter. We do see that she is becoming more of a person and less of a Barbie doll princess as she copes with her various problems, but her destiny remains uncertain.

Arya is simply trying to survive, as she has been pretty much since her father was executed back in book 1, and to do that she takes on a number of personas in several different locales. The youngest of the Stark girls, she is a long way from making her mark in the world, yet she continues to seem to have a lot of promise.

Brienne of Tarth, the mannish woman who would be a soldier, has pledged to Jamie Lannister that she will find and protect Sansa Stark – but she doesn’t know where to find her and ends up having many adventures on her way to a very nasty cliffhanger that I’ll just bet doesn’t get resolved until book 6, if it does at all. Martin has a habit of actually terminating characters that he’s made us grow fond of, so who knows.

Jamie, meanwhile, is on his own quest, happy to be away from his sister, wishing he could rescue their remaining son from the madness that he can see enveloping her, coping with the loss of his sword hand, and actually doing quite a bit of good in the world.

Our first impressions of this man were supposed to have been set by that scene back in book 1 where he caused young Bran Stark to fall from a great height and lose the use of his legs. Between that and the incest that produced both of his sons, there seemed nothing to like about this man. Over two books, Martin has succeeded in shining light into the better parts of his nature.

Cersei seems to have been driven further round the bend by brother Tyrion (aka – “the Imp”) murdering their father and the loss of her eldest son, Joffrey to poison by persons unknown, both events in the previous book. Determined to be a female version of her father, Tywin, she engages in a multiplicity of plots, while serving as regent for her very young son, Tommen, who is now the king. Most of these schemes simply serve to isolate her more and leave her in a dreadful mess at the end of this book.

If these weren’t enough characters to have to juggle, Martin introduced a whole new subplot of characters from the Iron Islands, who will, apparently, play a big role in the next several volumes, of which there are supposed to be three.

If you only know this story from HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, be aware that these books are just as violent, but not nearly as sexy as the TV series. In fact, this book is notably less prurient than the earlier three. HBO has insisted in showing us highly detailed scenes that are generally more lightly sketched in print.

If you’re dying to know what happened to Jon Stark and the Night Watch, Bran Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, Varys the Spider, or Melisandre (the Red Priestess), you’ll have to wait.

I’ve been reading this series as part of a four volume e-book version that I acquired during a KOBO sale a few years ago. This works pretty well on a pad, but referring to the material in the appendices at the end of each volume is a nuisance, and I’ve found it easier to check on family details in one of the numerous Wikipedia pages devoted to this series.

Martin is a novelist and short-story writer in the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres, as well as being a television producer and screenwriter. The other large project he’s involved in as editor and writer is the Wild Cards shared universe anthology series about people with super powers, which currently totals about 21 volumes, the earliest of which have recently been reissued with additional material added.

 

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Bookends – There are no such things as vampires January 31, 2017

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Science Fiction, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends – There are no such things as vampires

By Dan Davidson

September 28, 2016

rhesus-chart– 842 words –

 

The Rhesus Chart

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

372 pages

$10.49

 

In the fifth installment of the Laundry Files, Charles Stross takes on the subject of vampires, giving the supernatural his usual twist.

The Laundry is a secret organization somewhat in the vein of the MIO (Military Intelligence Other) that was featured in the ITV Jekyll and Hyde series that CBC ran last year. Every country has a similar organization and they all deal with things from other dimensions that would like to spend some time in our world. To do that they may burst across dimensional walls, or they may infect (read: possess) some of this world’s inhabitants.

Magic, in Stross’s rendering (much like that of L. Sprague de Camp and Jack Chalker), is actually connected to mathematics, and it is mathematicians and philosophers who seem most likely to discover it; mostly, it seems, by accident.

Bob Howard was an IT specialist and computer nerd who stumbled onto a spell that might have done a lot of damage to the world, and so he was immediately recruited into the Laundry – it was that or die, basically. Most of the Laundry’s agents joined up the same way.

Old style magic used to record spells in grimoires, but times have changed. When we first met Bob in The Atrocity Archive he was storing his emergency spells on a Palm Zire. He’s since upgraded to a smart phone.

His life has upgraded as well. When I last read one of these, Bob was single, but now he’s married to Mo, who is also an agent, one who is paired with a particularly vicious creature that looks, to the normal eye, pretty much like violin. It’s a weapon of incredible power and Mo’s a really good fiddler, but if she plays till her fingers bleed, bad things can happen.

In the current adventure, a group of banking nerds accidentally finds a combination of spells, while working of an accounting program, that links them to some extra dimensional parasites that basically turn them into vampires. There’s a twist. While they need the occasional drink of human blood to keep their new parasites from consuming them, their dining links them to their victims in a psychic manner and the parasites drain their victims of life force, leaving husks behind.

When the Laundry becomes aware of a sudden spate of suspicious deaths, they trace it to the bank. When Bob is sent in to “manage” the problem, he finds himself face to face with a former girlfriend, someone who once worked in the Laundry’s human resources office and knows how to game the system. She gets herself and her mates signed on as agents, thus avoiding death. The new vampires are classified as PHANG – short for Photogolic Hemophagic Anagathic Neurotropic, and no one knows what the G is for, but it works – persons and are about to be put to work somehow, when they started getting murdered.

It turns out that a group of PHANGS is a very unusual thing. By nature, they are territorial and loners (“there can be only one”, as the Highlanders used to say), and tend to work hard to keep their own numbers small so that they won’t be detected. It appears that there are already some very old members of the species in the area and they don’t like the attention the newbies are attracting, so they are dealing with it.

Or, at least, that’s what appears to be happening. On the other hand, there has to be some reason why nearly all the members of an organization devoted to the study and taming of occult threats are so absolutely convinced that vampires don’t exist. Solving that mystery becomes a side issue in the case file with the amusing name Opera Cape, until it turns out that this may actually be the main event.

I’ve said enough. The book is fun. It has some actual mysteries in it and quite a few plot twists. Enjoy it.

As I read this book, references to previous stories made it clear that I had missed some installments since reading The Jennifer Morgue, which was the last one I had seen. It turns out there are two books I’ve missed, which explains why Bob’s power levels are higher than I recalled them being. The current issue of Locus magazine has a long interview with Stross in which I learned that there are also two books after this one that I haven’t seen yet, as well as two Hugo Award winning short stories using the same setting. I’m looking forward to all of them.

I met and chatted with Stross at the Montreal Science Fiction Worldcon a few years back. He’s an interesting fellow who writes in a number of different styles. The Laundry books are basically H.P. Lovecraft meets John LeCarré, but he writes regular science fiction as well and has a variety of series on the go.

 

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