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

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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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Bookends: Adventures in the spy trade and in a bookstore November 5, 2015

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Bookends: Adventures in the spy trade and in a bookstore

By Dan DavidsonMorgue

May 6, 2015

– 792 words –

The Jennifer Morgue

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

401 pages

$9.99

Once there was a writer from Texas named Robert E. Howard. He specialized in a form of fantasy called sword and sorcery and, though he was far from the only writer in the genre, his tales of Conan the barbarian have probably rendered him the best known name of the tribe.

He was an associate of another genre writer named H.P. Lovecraft, whose tales of eldritch monsters from other dimensions, that used to rule the Earth, have inspired many a horror fantasy writer.

Then there was Ian Fleming, a one time spy, stockbroker, banker and foreign correspondent, who turned his wish-fulfillment dreams into James Bond and left that mark on the world. You can read more about him and his creation in the afterword to this novel, “The Golden Age of Spying.”

The book at hand is the second in Charles Stross’s tales of the Laundry, which is what he’s calling his magic driven version of the British secret service. Magic is a form of applied mathematics in this world, a compendium of useful spells at stored on PDAs for easy retrieval.

Bob Howard (the reference should be obvious from how I started this column) is a top agent of the Laundry, and his business is keeping mystical mishaps and alien incursions from happening.

In this reality we are sharing the planet with some rather nasty creatures, and there are various protocols in place that allow us to coexist without being wiped out by them. Some live deep in the Earth, so we must not tunnel too deeply. Fracking would be a no-no. others are in the deepest reaches of the oceans and so there are other boundaries we must observe.

Some of them are at war with each other and would be creating planetary havoc if not for certain fail safes that have been put in place.

A billionaire named Ellis Billington believes that by commandeering one of these, code named the Jennifer Morgue, he can achieve ultimate power in the human world. In order to do this he needs some unwitting agents to act out the basic patterns that can be found in the works of Ian Fleming. He arranges to impose a geas (compulsion spell) on Bob to cause him to assume the role of Bond, and lines up a suitable woman (sort of – it’s complicated) to play the part of the somewhat dubious female lead. Bound by this spell, and linked psychically in ways no Fleming couple ever could have been, they are to become the unwitting agents of his success.

It might have all worked as planned if Bob and Ramona hadn’t managed to work out just what was going on and managed to jam a few sticks through the bicycle wheels of his plot.

This is the second Laundry Files book, the first having been a collection of stories called The Atrocity Archives. The present book actually contains the mystical Fleming homage I’ve been describing, which is a full novel on its own. Then there is a short story that is more the usual sort of Laundry adventure, something involving computer role playing games. Finally there is the informative and entertaining essay about Fleming and his hero to which I referred you back in paragraph 3.

The whole package is full of adventure and no small amount of humour. Give it a try.

Curious George Goes to a BookstoreGeorge

Story by Julie M. Bartynski

Illustrations by Mary O’Keefe Young

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

32 pages

$17.95

Margret and H.A. Rey are no longer with us, but Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat live on. I don’t think the original books ever got quite the posh treatment that this one has received: hardcover, full colour, slick paper, end papers. This is a far cry from those Scholastic Press paperbacks that have filled the children’s sections of so many libraries.

This follows the standard outline. The Man (no longer capitalized for some reason) takes George somewhere. George wanders off and gets into a bit of mischief that doesn’t actually hurt anyone and is rescued from the situation by the man.

George meets his favourite author, had some banana bread, finds boxes full of the newest book in his favourite series of books, sets up an unauthorized but very inventive book display that everyone likes, and gets to meet his favourite author.

There’s a nice touch at the end, a page that gives a brief section on how to write a story and three story starters, which it invites young readers to try for themselves.

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Bookends: An unlikely trio of investigators saves the day January 1, 2014

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Bookends: An unlikely trio of investigators saves the day

By Dan Davidson

December 4, 2013

– 826 words –

 

Halting State

Halting State

By Charles Stross

Ace Books

324 pages

$9.99

 

You open the book to find that it begins with an email that looks a lot like an extended version of one of those phony employment ads that keep turning up in your junk box. This one’s addressed to someone named Nigel, whose name will turn up later, and it is from a firm claiming to be headhunters, offering him a job.

You move on to chapter one, where you meet Sue Smith, the first of three viewpoint characters who you are gong to follow as the story develops. Sue is a sergeant in the Edinburgh Constabulary in the year 2018, when cops wear google-glasses as pretty much standard equipment so that all their on-duty actions and observations are recorded in LifeLogs. They a lot of their work in various forms of online detecting and analyzing, within a dedicated cloud channel known as CopSpace.

Sue is called out to the oddest theft she’s ever encountered, and it takes you a while to to realize what’s going on. Within the framework of an online video game a bunch of thugs who shouldn’t even have had access that universe broke into a structure similar to a bank and made off with all the quest items and magic artifacts that pass for wealth in that gaming world and several others. Her task is to find the perps and the swag, which can apparently be traded around a lot like the bitcoins everyone is starting to get excited about now.

Next you meet Elaine, who is an investigator with the insurance company that has been called in to work on the same case. She’s great with generally accepted accounting principles, but not so well versed in gaming.

That’s where Jack enters the story. Jack’s an out of work programmer with lots of gaming skills and he is to be Elaine’s guide in the online world. You meet him sitting in a drunken/stoned haze in an armchair chained to a NO PARKING sign in Amsterdam, having just been fired from his software developing company. It’s not a promising beginning, but he is soon selected by a search engine to be Elaine’s parter/mentor, for reasons that will be made much clearer to you as the book continues.

Just before the story begins, Charles Stross thanks a whole long list of first readers of this book for their invaluable assistance. I’ll bet a good chunk of it addressed the problems inherent in writing an entire novel in the second person singular voice, something usually reserved for instruction manuals and choose your own adventure books.

It’s quirky, and it took me a few character rotations to stop noticing it and just let the story run.

That is, of course, why the first five paragraphs of this review were written the same way, just to give you an idea of how the book feels.

There are layers to this story, and the simple burglary is just the first level of the adventure, which is, I suppose, structured a bit like the levels in a video game. Somewhat like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the plot gets bigger the further into it you move, and I soon found I was picking up this book before the other ones I was reading at the time (there are always several of varying genres on the go) just to find out what Stross’ odd trio of protagonists was going to encounter next.

The title of the book is a pun, according to the author. Stross is a former computer programmer and the Halting Problem is a rather famous conundrum in programming. An online description puts it thusly: “Given a description of an arbitrary computer program, decide whether the program finishes running or continues to run forever“.

A lot of the plot of the book involves a group of hackers who are attempting to bring the economy of a small European state (Scotland has achieved independence in this future) to a screeching halt, or … a halting state.

Video games, computer surveillance and LARPing (life action role play) have a lot to do with how this story develops. Like that poetic passage in the book of Ezekiel, there are wheels within wheels within wheels before our poor protagonists begin to have any idea what’s going on or how their very lives have been manipulated by players behind the scenes to bring them to the point where they would be caught up in the attempt to set the situation straight.

Having read two other novels by Stross, each of which was completely different from the other, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that this one read differently than either of those. They do have a certain subversive sense of humour in common, but that’s about all. He’s hard to describe but he’s definitely worth picking up.

 

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