Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)

By Rachel Caine

Rating: 3 stars

I picked this up mostly because I’m a big fan of books (obviously!) and libraries, and I also love Genevieve Cogman‘s Invisible Library series, so I thought another series of books about a magical library (sorry, Library) would be right up my street. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

Jess is the son of a London book smuggler in a world where owning books is illegal. The Great Library of Alexandria never fell in this world, and there’s lots of books, that people can access, but they just can’t own them. And even after reading the book, I’m really not entirely sure why. The printing press was independently invented several times over in this world and has been suppressed by the Library each time. I still don’t entirely understand why the Library would want to do that. Jess is sent to study at the Library, as part of a cohort of postulants, all competing for the few available positions.

This is a book about power and how it leads to complacency and corruption. The hierarchy of the Library is happy with how things stand and will do anything to preserve the existing structures. They also value books and knowledge over people, sending Jess and his fellow students into a war zone to retrieve the original books held at a library, while not being able to help the people at all.

We have some well-known archetypes in Jess’s fellow students, including the technical expert, the arrogant aristocrat and the genius student, and it’s as much about how they bond as a group as it is about the corruption of the Library.

I must confess that at the first mention of a war currently going on between the Welsh and English, I sort of laughed, since being attacked by the Welsh seems about as threatening as being savaged by a puppy, but when Jess et al are dropped into the middle of that war, it’s anything but funny. Still, it does raise questions about the world – apparently the English never totally subjugated the Welsh in this world. What does that mean for Scotland and Ireland? Was there ever a United Kingdom? A British Empire? How has the Library’s influence altered history?

But despite the likeable protagonist and interesting setting, I’m not sure I’ll continue with the series. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction and especially in the middle of a global pandemic I find myself craving lighter, fluffier fiction. Also, there are five books in the series. A trilogy I could maybe have handled, but I don’t think I can bring myself to slog through another four books set in a world I don’t enjoy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780749017224
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Year of publication: 2015

The Revisionists

By Thomas Mullen

Rating: 2 stars

Zed, going by the alias Troy Jones, is a time traveller, sent back to ensure that dissidents from his own time don’t save civilisation now, thereby preventing his own “Perfect Present” from being formed. But what is Zed keeping from himself, and how are a corporate lawyer, a washed-out spook and a foreign diplomat’s maid involved?

While the book zipped along at a reasonable pace, I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy reading it very much. I didn’t like either Zed or Leo, the former spy. The former doesn’t question either his society or his mission until very late in the book, and the later seems to just get off on leveraging what little power he has left against people who are just trying to make a stand against corruption.

Neither the lawyer, Tasha, nor the maid, Sari, have much in the way of power, and they’re manipulated, threatened and attacked by others, primarily men. It’s ugly but the book seems to just shrug its shoulders and say that that’s the way of things. It made me pretty angry at times, it wasn’t hugely subtle, well, about anything, really. The parallels between the present and the (really obviously dystopian) future were pretty clear from the get-go.

Towards the end of the book, when the book really starts pushing the idea of Zed as an unreliable narrator it gets a bit more interesting, especially as the threads start to come together a bit, but for me it wasn’t worth the effort.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444727654
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2011

A Quantum Mythology

By Gavin G. Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I got this book free in a GoodReads giveaway, without knowing anything about it. Unfortunately, it appears to be the follow up to another book, The Age of Scorpio. Perhaps if I’d read the first book, this one might have made sense, but as it was, it was very difficult to keep up with what was going on (although I think that’s as much just the author giving very little ground to the reader, and throwing you in at the deep end).

And, alas, I also just didn’t really like it very much. The book is spread across three different time zones, usually with two different strands going on in each one, and there are few links between the storylines. In the past, some sort of disaster has befallen the Celts and the land is mutating everything that gets in its way, with a small band of survivors trying to escape and even stop it. In the present, two super-powered agents of a shadowy organisation are searching for a killer and in the far future, a murderous bounty hunter has acquired a girl: who may be the most precious thing in Known Space.

I think I found the sections in the past most difficult to follow. I’m not familiar with Celtic mythology or words, so I had to keep looking things up to see if they were made up or were an actual word. This was also the one that felt most like I was entering half way through a story and had no idea what was going on.

In the future, Scab and Vic are unpleasant and pathetic respectively and while we keep being told just how evil and nasty that Scab is, we see very little of this. And Talia (the aforementioned most valuable thing in Known Space) hardly helps her own case, by constantly whining and trying to manipulate others.

The story in the present is probably the most interesting, with Malcolm DuBois probably the most well-rounded of the characters, but it really doesn’t help that his quarry, Silas Scab, is (probably) the same one in the future, so you know he’s going to survive.

Speaking of surviving, the violence throughout the book is considerable. Smith seems to feel that because most of his characters have magic nanites in their blood that can repair injuries, he can just tear off limbs and tear holes in people with impunity. After a while it just becomes repetitive. I didn’t find the action scenes particularly effective because of this. Also, the future described in this book, and the bits of the present that (loosely) tie to that future are incredibly unpleasant and set up in the present to bring about that future. I found reading about it quite unpleasant (although I accept that this is very much just me, as I don’t like dystopia)

I appreciate that I’m coming to this half way through a story without seeing the beginning, but what I’ve read has given me no inclination to read the previous book and certainly not the next book in the sequence.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575126992
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2015

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline

Rating: 4 stars

In the near future, the world isn’t a hugely nice place, with the oil running out and job security a thing of the past, so most people who can spend their time in the OASIS: a virtual environment where they can escape real life. The OASIS was created by James Halliday and upon his death, he left the whole thing, and the multi-billion dollar company behind it, to whoever solves the puzzle he’s left in the OASIS. Wade Watts is one of the millions of hopefuls who leaves the real world behind to try to be the one who does it.

This was a fun book that I raced through once I got started. It’s easy to read, with a likeable protagonist. Halliday was obsessed by the 1980s, so Cline has an excuse to throw in huge numbers of pop culture references which are pleasing to someone of my generation (although one has to wonder how the book will date).

The book has a (somewhat cartoonish) villain in the form of IOI, the evil ISP that is hiring hundreds of people and spending huge amounts of money to try and solve the puzzle, to the extant that they’ll take actions outside the OASIS as well as within it.

Opposing them, Wade is a nice enough guy who hasn’t got much to live for in the real world. When we meet him, he’s living in the future version of a trailer park: one where trailers are piled up on top of each other to make maximum space in a twisted sort of skyscraper. He’s in his late teens and spends every waking moment in the OASIS, researching the puzzle, which mostly means watching and memorising 80s films, TV shows, anime and playing computer games of the era. After a while, you do wonder at the obsession of Wade and other ‘gunters’ ([Easter] egg hunters) in their search, but it’s a nice way to indicate just how much they don’t want to live in the real world.

Wade’s other rivals are a friendlier bunch and despite the bravado from them to start with, it’s obvious that they’re going to end up buddies from early on.

As most of our viewpoint is spent inside the OASIS, we don’t get to see much of how badly the world is collapsing, with just hints as to how corporations have become more powerful than nation states although one rather neat window to this world is the reintroduction of slavery in the US, via ‘indentured servitude’: if you are in debt, large corporations can own you, and make you work to pay it off (which you’ll never do). Subtle this book ain’t.

But it is fun and a worthwhile read for anyone who enjoys computer games and/or has moderately fond memories of 1980s pop culture.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099560432
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 2011

The Space Merchants

By Frederik Pohl

Rating: 3 stars

Venus is being opened up for colonisation, and Fowler Schocken Associates wants to be the first, and only, advertising agency there. In this grimly plausible future that Pohl and Kornbluth have established, advertising is the be all and end all of life with the majority working in labyrinthine contracts they have no hope of breaking out of in effective slavery for life. Democracy is a parody of itself, with senators representing companies, not people and those companies are in hock to the advertising agencies. The few people still concerned about protecting the planet are dismissed as subversive “consies” (conservationists) and hunted down.

I picked this up purely because I knew the name and respect both Pohl and Kornbluth (if you’re not familiar with it, Pohl’s blog is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in SF fandom and history). I don’t like dystopias in general, although I can appreciate a well thought out one. From my limited experience, this is a good one, although I still probably wouldn’t have picked it up had I known its genre before starting it.

For a book written in 1952, it’s extremely prescient. We’re not there yet, but the future of The Space Merchants doesn’t look as implausible as it should.

Book details

Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1952

The Electric Church (Avery Cates, #1)

By Jeff Somers

Rating: 2 stars

Avery Cates is a contract killer in a near future where the world has been unified, forcibly, under the Joint Committee. The System Cops have practically unlimited powers and unless you’re rich, you’re living in the gutters in the ruins of the great cities, mostly destroyed in the unification riots. In this society, Cade accidentally kills a System Cop, bringing the wrath of the system down on him, until he’s offered a very unexpected way out: to kill the head of the Electric Church, a new religious organisation whose first tenet is to convert humans into cyborgs, whether they want to be converted or not.

Another nearish-future dystopia, I enjoyed this slightly more than Moxyland, but that’s not saying much. I didn’t find the anti-hero hugely sympathetic, and given his lack of competence, he was really only kept alive by the power of plot. The Monks – the cyborg ‘converts’ of the Electric Church – with their outwardly placid countenances and lightning reflexes and weapons are intriguing, as is the idea that they prey on the poor and homeless, offering literal immortality. This would be creepy enough without the “involuntary conversions” but they, and their effect on society, are never really explored. The story doesn’t quite hang together either, and, as I’ve said before, I don’t really like dystopias and only read this because the cover blurb sounded interesting and it was free at Eastercon. Not one I’ll be rereading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316053938
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2007

A for Anything

By Damon Knight

Rating: 2 stars

This was an intensely irritating book for me. It starts with the invention of the ‘gismo’, a device that can duplicate anything placed on it, with no expenditure of energy. From this, it would seem that a Paradise for mankind should arise, but within two or three chapters, we see that the book decides to take a very different line with this idea. With material possessions now no longer an issue, there still needs to be some way of differentiating ‘grades’ of people: so slavery returns.

This came completely out of left-field for me, but after thinking about it, it sort of makes a kind of sense. If all that is left of value is labour, then who controls it controls the society. I think this is a very American attitude, well, a certain sort of extreme right-wing American, a European book with a similar premise would probably have gone along very different lines.

The majority of the book is set about 70 years after the invention of the gismo, when the new slave society is established as we follow a young freeman sent off by his family to spend a year as an officer in the army of the local ‘baron’ in an almost Gormenghastian mountain castle/estate.

There were some interesting ideas, especially later in the book following a slave revolt, but I just couldn’t get past the opening premise and failed to really enjoy this book. Particularly the rather bleak ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9781892884015
Publisher: Cascade Mountain Publishing
Year of publication: 1959


By Lauren Beukes

Rating: 1 star

This is a near-future cyberpunk-based dystopia set in South Africa where four people from disparate spheres of life are drawn together in a web of mystery and intrigue.

This was a free book that was in the con pack at Eastercon, and it’s not one that I would have picked for myself. It’s brutal, packs a punch and realistically disturbing. It postulates a society where having your phone locked as punishment means more than just not being able to make calls. The society is rigged so that public transport, money, access to your own home are done through your phone, and if the corporates and the government control that, they control your life. Our smartphones aren’t there yet, but connect the phones to something like London’s Oyster Card system, and you’re getting pretty close.

What I felt was going a little OTT was the ‘diffusers’ – tasers built into the phones by law that can be activated remotely by the police with hardly any checks and balances, and the releasing of a deadly virus as crowd control – only the authorities have the antidote so if you don’t want to die, you have to hand yourself in.

I didn’t find any of the characters particularly sympathetic, from the obnoxious journalist/blogger off his head on drugs to the rigidly idealistic anti-capitalist, which meant there was no real entry point that made me care about the story, apart from it being a sick world that I really wouldn’t want to live in.

Useful as a cautionary tale about the possible downsides to the heady mix of technology and corporate interests that makes up so much of modern life, but certainly not something I’ll read again.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007323890
Publisher: Angry Robot
Year of publication: 2008

Glorifying Terrorism, Manufacturing Contempt: An Anthology

By Farah Mendlesohn

Rating: 3 stars

This anthology was published as a reaction to the Terrorism Act 2006 and each story in it could be interpreted as breaking that law, particularly in regards to the “glorification of terrorism” clauses. In this regard, they were a mixed bag. Some were subtle and some were as subtle as a half-brick in a sock. The quality was generally high, although I was disappointed by Ken Macloed’s contribution which was fragmentary and a bit random.

The problem is really that, by its very nature, it’d have to be a mostly dystopian book. And, as I’ve pointed out before, I don’t like dystopian fiction much. However, the point is more to do with the politics, and I still feel that it’s an important point to make, and I’m glad that I did buy the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780955468803
Publisher: Rackstraw Press
Year of publication: 2006

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