Karl Gallagher (selenite) wrote,
Karl Gallagher
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Recent Reading

I've been catching up on books by Walter Jon Williams.

Hardwired This had been my favorite WJW book, but it's too depressing for me to read it these days unless I'm in the mood for something grim. Very good though.

The Crown Jewels This is what I picked up instead--and liked much more than when I first read it. This is a comedy of manners about an aristocratic thief, who can be an Allowed Burglar if he does it with enough style. Naturally life gets complicated, and Lord Drake Maijstral struggles, not to survive, but maintain his reputation without violating the Heyeresque etiquette of his class. Of course, this isn't a Regency, so the rules are different. It's set so far in the future that they've got a Diana, Warrior Princess grasp of history so there's all sorts of silliness.

Aristoi I picked this up when it first came out and bounced off it. Read it for the first time this year. Interesting portrayal of a society that's carefully slowed progress down to a crawl just as it was approaching the Singularity. The protagonist is far too arrogant for me to like spending time with him, but that appears to be necessary stage-setting for the villain. It assumes the gray goo danger from nanotech, which is a casual ignoring of conservation laws that always annoys me, but that's a common error. Well written with some interesting applications of AI.

One aspect I've been thinking more on is the formalization (for lack of a better word) of different parts of a person's mind. Instead of just being "of two minds" about something, each disagreeing part is given a name and can go off and perform tasks independently. I'll probably have another post on that.

Angel Station This had gotten bought and lost in the library during a move (yes, I can lose books in my library). Looked like it would be good Firefly methadone: struggling free traders on the rim of inhabited space. Fifty pages in I decided it was a more depressing version of Hardwired and put it down. I'll come back to it when my mood's darker.

The Rift rlseiver gave me this one. It's a disaster novel looking at the impact of a Richter 8.9 quake along the New Madrid fault line. Makes me glad I don't live close to the Mississippi River. The plot concerns a few survivors trying to find their families and escape to safety. It has the traditional disaster-story structure of starting with people who have nothing to do with each other and proceeding to the climax where they're all flung together by the crisis. No dramatic ideas apart from the impact of the quake itself. Pointing out the vulnerabilities in our infrastructure is scary, but earthquakes aren't the only threat to that. Williams also used the story to look at class and race issues in America, without getting bogged down in stereotypes. He even managed to elicit a tiny (very tiny) amount of sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan sheriff getting crushed by the consequences of his past decisions. I have to confess my favorite part of the book is the prologue showing a Mound Builder city wiped out by an earlier New Madrid quake.

Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis Unlike the others I found this one through WJW's website and liked the sample chapter. It's damn good space opera. My personal definition of "space opera" is "interstellar travel without AI or other Singularity-tech." WJW actually supplies a rationale for that--interstellar conquest by aliens who impose a static society, forbidding technological progress. The series covers the struggle for control among the subject races after the original conquerors die off. The space combat sticks closely to known physics, with ships accelerating at the highest Gs their crews can stand to go into combat at fractional-C velocities. It's the closest I've seen to the Project Rho discussion on the physics of space travel. That includes a bit which claimed space fighters would never be useful because of fuel and mass limits. I agree that there'll never be dogfighters, but a small craft could still be useful as a forward observer. The Praxis has pinnaces serving that exact role for salvos of missiles, guiding them toward targets and reacting to enemy maneuvers, so it's nice to see WJW agrees with me on that.

It's also a more cheerful book, at least in the impact on me. Angel Station focused on some bottom-end kids getting screwed over by the system, but the human race as a whole was in great shape. The Praxis has a peaceful order dissolving and whole cities destroyed by antimatter bombs, but Our Hero is having the time of his life. For him war means excitement, promotions, medals, and all the good things in life. Guess the characters hold me much better than the setting does. I bought the two sequels and will be reading them soon.

I've also been re-reading some of the Liaden series again. Conflict of Honors, Local Custom, and Scout's Progress are my favorites of the series, particularly the last. It has a nice SF adventure feel while letting me concentrate on the people and their romance. The authors say they were aiming for a Heyeresque feel and I think they succeeded. Scout's Progress also gives some examples of the problems with Liaden society, which had been looking a bit idealized. Korval still has a whiff of Mary-Suism about it--rich, handsome, athletic, heir to throne, and talking unicornpsychic tree.

Crystal Soldier is a new read. That's the set-up of a prequel series, and so far is giving me more questions than answers. Crystal Dragon should help some with that. I'm also reading Fledgling, the chapter-a-week tipjar experiment. Fun so far.

Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age has been getting some discussion on the net because it's being made into a miniseries so I pulled it out again. For a twelve year old near future SF novel it's holding up very well--most start showing some flaws because of social or technological change in a few years. I find this is a book that gets better on every re-reading. There's all sorts of subtle cues that make clear the later events of the book, but there's so much stuff going on it's easy to miss them.

The nanotechnology shown still looks like good forecast of what we'll be able to do, if not when we'll get there. Stephenson ended the story before we saw Dr. X receive his Seed. I suspect he would've been disappointed by how it worked in practice. Confucian society historically hasn't done well at keeping everyone from indulging anti-social impulses, especially the rulers, and the Seed would allow them to do a lot of damage. Conversely it wouldn't be nearly as damaging to the neighbors as the Victorians fear. Given the limitations on the energy and elements contained in any random chunk of soil, it might be quicker and easier to run a Feed out to a location than to wait for the Seed to finish its work.

Something I'd picked up hints of but only fully grasped on this reading was the brutality of the Neo-Victorians in setting up a welfare society on their doorstep. The "thetes" receive free supplies of bottom-end nanofactory products and entertainment, with only a handful getting jobs in the "Vickie" enclave. They display all the worst-case inner-city welfare culture traits, with gang wars, omnipresent crime, child abuse, no stable families, etc. Unlike past societies this isn't an unintended consequence of performing charity or social duty. In The Diamond Age the welfare subsidy is intended as bait, luring in thousands of people to serve as mine-shaft canaries. As long as the thetes are just shooting each other and living miserably, the Victorians can peacefully go about their lives. If a sudden plague wipes out 30% of the thetes then it's time for a quarantine, armed biological research missions, and updates to everyone's immune system nanoboosts.
Tags: books, science fiction
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