Saturday, June 12, 2010

Review Post for 6/12/10

Ian Tregillis - Bitter Seeds

This was a profoundly creepy alt-history of World War Two. The Germans have developed electronically enhanced psychic abilities - fire lighting, distance speaking, precognition, invisibility, insubstantiality. The British fight back with magic - warlocks gathered from their various lairs negotiate with otherworldly beings at extravagant costs in human lives. Deals with two really big questions - 1) how to deal, as an author, with a character who has precognition. 2) how far should a nation go to win a war? How far is too far? There are lots of little questions too. A meaty book in its own right, and there will probably be a sequel. That will be interesting - is it possible to maintain the same level of creepy across two books? Will we, the readers, begin to anticipate the twists? I liked it, and I'll look at the sequel when it arrives, but I don't think this is something that Tegillis will be able to sustain. Precognition is tough to work with - Tregillis admitted as much in his discussion of the book in John Scalzi's Big Idea (which is where I learned about it). Either it gets boring as the protagonists are unable to compete with an antagonist who knows their every move, or the protagonists develop something that either blocks the precognition or begin acting in an unpredictable fashion. Tregillis has left this book with no clear sense of who has won the bigger game (beyond the struggle of nations), and I'm interested to see where it goes from there.

The only thing I didn't really like was the abrupt ending. This may be my historian coming through - I wanted Tregillis to blend his alternative narrative more gently with the standard history. I guess I wanted a Tim Powers or a Neal Stephenson (one of the principle characters was named Stephenson - I think this was a deliberate homage, but it's possibly just coincidence), where in the principal narrative happens below and entwined within the historical narrative, and I got Harry Turtledove, more or less, where the history branches away from what actually happened. I don't think this is a reason not to read the book - Tregillis did an excellent job - I just think it could have been more than it was.

Cory Doctorow - For The Win

Well written story of labor organizing in cyberspace set in the near future. Doctorow anticipates some trends, and expands other current realities in this discussion of gold farming in online gaming. Doctorow is passionate about his subject, and his economics are well researched, and very well presented. As with most of Doctorow's novels, however, I doubt this will convert anyone to his position. Doctorow is preaching to the choir. I suspect that if you like the idea of organized labor, you'll really enjoy this. If you have reservations, you may find this to be somewhat unrealistic.Likewise, you views on computer/information "freedom" (free as in speech, not free as in beer) may affect how you view this book. I enjoyed it a great deal - the passion spoke to me, the politics aligned with my own, and it was an interesting book about playing online games.

Two things I didn't like. One, although the economics were solid, and the writing about economics was clear and easy to read and understand, the shift from the narrative to the discussion of economics was a little rough. So you'd be reading about kids playing games, or fleeing cops, or getting beaten up by goons (virtually or literally), and then there would be this witty little lecture on economics - and then back to the action! There were a couple of places where the lectures were better integrated than others, but for the most part it was a little cludgy. In his last novel, Little Brother, Doctorow included a short essay in the rear of the book which explicated a number of ideas which he had broached. That would have been preferable here, perhaps.

The other thing I didn't like, and this may be unavoidable to some extent - it's difficult to describe online games in a realistic way. Doctorow admits that he doesn't actually play a lot of MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games, although his wife does. His descriptions were accurate for the most part - he had a very good guide - but they felt slightly off. Because, you know, I do play MMOs, and so it just felt a little, not quite right. I've noticed this before. Charles Stross describes a world in which everyone plays virtual reality games more or less all the time in Halting State, and that didn't feel quite right either - the overlay of virtual reality over actual reality was a little twitchy in places. It's tricky to describe something that takes place on a computer, though. Consider attempts to describe, either in books or in movies, computer hacking. There's not a lot to look at, most of the time. Anyway, I think this is something that would only bother you if you were already a fan of MMOs, and it's certainly not a reason not to read the book.

Tomorrow - I will review my beach reading books! It's not an extensive list; not a lot of reading happened.