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The Naked God: The Night's Dawn trilogy: Book Three (Nights Dawn Trilogy 3)
The Naked God: The Night's Dawn trilogy: Book Three (Nights Dawn Trilogy 3)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Stodgy progress toward a quick, flawed conclusion, 23 Jun 2014
How do you face 1,332 pages?
How do you confront 469,000 words?
My solution: Dedicate as many waking moments of my day for 16 consecutive days. I could have read four or five normal-sized novels in the same time, but I chose to finish Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy.

I may have glutted on the first two books, requiring two months of recovery before attempting to finish the trilogy; in foresight and hindsight, this was a wise choice. My grasp of the numerous plots didn't slacken and, after all that time away, I had developed a thirst for immersing myself into a thick novel. The only other to-be-read novel in my collection which comes close to rival this length is Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666.

Hamilton's The Naked God is a rite of initiation (after this, all books are short), a rite of passage (I would have eventually read this), and rite of finality (the trilogy's capstone). It might be a superlative novel in some regards, but the grammatical superlative "greatest novel" I cannot bequeath; rather, the base form adjective "satisfactory" must be used without any use of emphatics.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the `possessed' to infiltrate more worlds.

Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroying the giant arcologies one at a time. As Louise Kavanagh tries to track him down, she manages to acquire some strange and powerful allies whose goal doesn't quite match her own. The campaign to liberate Mortonridge from the possessed deteriorates into a horrendous land battle, the kind that hasn't been seen by humankind for six hundred years; then some of the protagonists escape in a very unexpected way. Joshua Calvert and Syrinx fly their starships on a mission to find the Sleeping God--which an alien race believes holds the key to overthrowing the possessed."

------------

Quinn Dexter has made it to the surface of Earth using his dark powers to conceal himself and infiltrate key arcologies. Though his desire to see Banneth dead in Calgary, New York is on his immediate list to seed with the possessed, who will in turn seed other cities across Earth. Little does he know that Earth has been watching out for him, trying to understand hi s motives and figuring out how to destroy him before he destroys the planet. The secretive and powerful B7 group flexes its might to cordon off entire arcologies, quarantine cities and shut down transportation; the danger is unparalleled, so their efforts reflect this.

The B7 group also has a avuncular eye out for Louise Kavanagh and her sister Genevieve. The upper-class sisters from the devastated planet Norfolk utilize their father's wealth in London while staying at the Ritz, splurging on outfits and even implanting a neural net (against the taboos of her home world). B7 understands the importance of her connection to Dexter; they strategize ways to allow Louise free reign of transport and indulgences. Her naivety is valued by B7.

Louise's beau, Joshua, has been selected to head a mission to find out what and where the Sleeping God is. The Kiint are interested in the Sleeping God, too. With Syrinx, their first destination is a anti-matter production station which Capone is using to fuel his war against the Confederation. This visit kills two birds with one stone: (1) Joshua gets loaded up with essential anti-matter fuel for the 1,000+ light-year journey and (2) they can destroy Capone's only source for anti-matter. However, when Capone's fleet comes to refuel, they see the Confederation ships, which results in a standoff. One ship hangs back observing their next jump, a jump which is aimed either at empty space, meant to deter following, or toward one of the Tyrathca colony home worlds.

Since the habitat Valisk had been transported through the ether to a senseless, dark universe, the ex-possessed suffer with cancerous growths and ghosts haunt the surface, one of which is Dariat, who is still in tune with the mind of the habitat. The wisps of darker mist outside the habitat don't interact with its mass, but probing beyond the mist proves fruitless. Unexpectedly, something from the void visits them, smashing through the windowed hull and attaching itself to a source of energy. Soon, these nebulous aliens gather more and more in order to seep away the life force of the habitat, but not without a fight by tooth, nail, and, most importantly, with flame.

Having lost his secret anti-matter station, Al Capone must find other ways to antagonize his enemy: the powerful yet abstract Confederation. He decides to rain terror onto local worlds by seeding them with possessed, too. Each planet's orbital defense network destroys most of the shot attempts, but only one survivor is enough to turn a planet from non-possessed to full-blown possessed. One of his most devastating missions--sending a human bomb to Traflagar--comes to fruition and really, really pisses off the Confederation. Capone may not have realized the repercussions of the attack until it's too late.

The Kingdom of Kulu has decided to post a massive front against the possessed on the planey of Ombey. Effectively sealed off, the attack begins with the orbital defense platforms firing lasers down upon the red cloud hanging over the province. The band of orbiting lasers pour dispersed energy into the cloud, into the possessed generating it, and into every single possessed person in the Confederation. When the cloud dissolves, the moisture that was pent up is released in an epic rainfall which erodes the land, turning everything into mud. The ground forces, mechanic bodies of transferred personalities, must trudge through the mud and capture and evict the possessed from every single little town of the province... except the patch of land where resistance quickly becomes escape when the entire landmass under their feet disappears. Now in a soupy dark void, tens of thousands of soldiers are displaced and thousand of the possessed must face death by suffocation as the air is slowly used up.

Meanwhile, Ione and her habitat Tranquility had faded an attack by Capone but, rather than sit and die, Tranquility instantly materializes in Jupiter orbit, shocking everyone and giving the Confederation a damn near heart attack. The Kiint were less sure of the tactic and displaced themselves through space to their home world, a distant location where a necklace of planets circle a sun unknown to humans... well, most humans that is. The Kiint's secret ability to transport themselves is also shared with a number of human "observers" who had witnessed the last two thousand years of human history and now are trying to intervene; should the Kiint assist the humans in ridding themselves of the possessed or is their non-intervention policy an ethical choice?

They live in interesting times.

------------

Though I finished the novel in sixteen days, the book felt sluggish. With 300 pages left, I couldn't see how all the plot lines could wrap up in time... then with 200 pages left, I again couldn't see how everything could be resolved... with 100 pages left, I suspected everything would be revolved thanks to some deux ex machina; and certainly, my suspicions proved correct. With over 3,400 pages dedicated to the trilogy, how could everything boil down to a one-all solution (the end to The Reality Dysfunction offered a hint). The plot thread which leads to the novel's conclusion is tenuous; the impetus is weak, the follow-through is linear and the finale is too grandiose. While the vehicle for the deux ex machine isn't exactly "out of the blue", the reality and function is what tips the ridiculousness scale.

A novel could be written about the deux ex machine in this trilogy, or perhaps a trilogy itself.

As mentioned above, the numerous plot thread felt hasty; they trudge along at a snail's pace without developing very much meanwhile feeling like the reader was simply being set up for something (that something is the deux ex machine). Reading the third book in the trilogy felt stodgy, a very inorganic process following the preceding two books... in other words, it felt forced (much like the conclusion).

Then there are holes in the trilogy:

1. Why did Laton, way way back in Book 1, sacrifice himself and offer a message reassuring people that there is a way past the beyond: not everyone is doomed to be a wandering soul (with very little satisfaction, there is an answer to this and it affects the course of mankind's future history). The importance of his role in the first third of the book could be the stuff of a prequel, but words of assurance don't return until the conclusion is drawing out.

2. As Joshua is gallivanting about the galaxy in his anti-matter powered spaceship, his crew come across evidence of the Kiint following the exact same line of inquiry; they're methods of electronic restoration is identifiable, their concern about the Sleeping God known. Yet, in the three giant leaps it takes to get to the conclusion, the Kiint are only implicated in the first step. If they are so powerful and all-knowing, why could they not take that one step further, like the measly humans did?

3. Quinn's dark powers peak near the conclusion when he tries to summon the fallen angels of his God's Brother. The result of his invocation startles him and startles the reader. There's a crossover of plots regarding Quinn and the invocation brings the two separate plot threads together in a wholly unexpected and, to the reviewer, inexplicable way. Considering Quinn's prowess with connecting with the dark side or whatever, he ought to be capable of tapping more greatly into the same realm... but what he invokes is way out of right-field.

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I guess pleasure can be found in the Night's Dawn trilogy, not from the thoughtful prose or engrossing storyline, but from the challenge. The challenge in reading the trilogy is to keep all the storylines in your mind without having to refer to the character list or flipping back to the preceding chapters. For me, it's a bit too much (1) military action, (2) galactic gallivanting, (3) whimsical fornication, (4) fantasy of the soul, and (5) downplay on importance of alien intelligence.


The Apex Book of World SF
The Apex Book of World SF
by Lavie Tidhar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Good collection which overuses the word "whilst", 4 Jun 2014
I was born, raised and educated in America but I've lived more than a third of my life in Thailand, almost my entire adult life actually; it has become my home, the place, people and customs I'm most familiar with. America is a foreign country. When I visit, the weather is unpredictable, the food is terrible and the shows people watch on TV are shameful, indulgent. Anyway, the general atmosphere is oppressive.

Being (what I hope doesn't sound hokey) a global citizen, many of my friends and students come from different backgrounds: Turkey, France, Lao, China, Brazil, Russia, Myanmar, Singapore, Korea, Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Portugal... just to name a few off the top of my head. Each time, I'm exposed to a different narrative, a fresh perspective on life. Verbalizing the difference between each cultural narrative is impossible, but a warm quality of humanity is pervasive; stereotypes dissolve: not all Koreans are technologically savvy, not all Chinese are ugly tourists, not all Singaporeans are submissive law abiders, not all Irish are... well, actually, they are--that one's true.

In essence, this mingling of cultures, this sometimes demonized "globalization", has stirred the soup of our shared narratives. Many people are now raised in bilingual, bicultural families. This leads us to the question: What is World SF? Is it a story which typifies a people or a merely exotic surname? Is it a story exhibiting tactic cultural norms or merely engrossed in myth? In the end, the stories in this collection don't have that exotic spark of foreign culture but they DO all have some wonderfully exotic names. If the reader is looking for foreignness within speculative fiction, these are not the stories you are looking for; but if the reader is interested in narratives which are difficult to access, this just may be it.

As mentioned in the paragraph above, this is a collection of "World SF" where "SF" does not stand for "science fiction", as it commonly does, rather for "speculative fiction": fantasy, horror, sci-fi, alternative history, etc. if you come looking for science fiction, these are not the stories you are looking for.

------Complaint Section, skip if desired------

One gripe: Being a global citizen and also being an English teacher, I understand that some countries prefer to use "while" and others prefer "whilst"; however, the use of each is not exclusive. Americans only use "while" but the British, for example, juggle the two. Take these great British novels for example:

* Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: while (32 times), whilst (0 times)
* E.M. Forster's A Room With a View: while (54 times), whilst (1 time)
* Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None: while (10 times), whilst (1 time)

The stories in this collection very, very oddly only use "while" once (page 148); every other story exclusively uses "whilst"--sixty-six times to be exact, two of which aren't even real words:

* Meanwhilst (?): pages 26, 45, 67, 289
* After a whilst: pages 44, 47, 105, 111, 144, 146, 219, 258, 323
* For a whilst: pages 110, 142, 154, 160, 210, 222, 237, 238, 248, 257, 259, 265, 277, 282
* Worth your whilst: page 119
* Worthwhilst (?): page 305
* All the whilst: page 319

"Meanwhile" has 57,900,000 Google hits; "meanwhilst" only has 62,600 results.
"Worthwhile" has 15,500,000 Google hits; "worthwhilst" only has 9,650 results.

Editor's fault? Publisher's fault?
This collection (Apex, an American publisher) has a version of Aliette de Bodard's "The Lost Xuyan Bride" that contains "whilst" 10 times. Anyone can access Aliette de Bodard's website and read another version of "The Lost Xuyan Bride" (first printed in the British magazine Interzone, 2007) that contains "while" 10 times.
Mutually exclusive?

------End of Rant------

Thailand, S.P. Somtow
"The Bird Catcher" (2001, novelette) - 4/5
Thailand's own boogieman isn't a strand of fiction--he actually existed and is actually preserved in a forensic museum just west of Bangkok. Nicolas has a story: He found his way to Siam as a stowaway from China where he was in a concentration camp. He arrived on the same boat as Si Ui, the man who caught and ate live birds. When they meet again, bird livers aren't the only thing Si Ui has a hunger for.

Netherlands, Jetse de vries
"Transcendence Express" (2007, shortstory) - 4/5
In the Dutch lowlands, research into quantum computing hits stride when crossed with biology, resulting in a bioquantum computer (BIQCO). Liona, once a straight-laced follower of innovation, follows her boyfriend to Zambia where he is a volunteer. She, too, volunteers her knowledge to the community. The homemade BIQCOs slowly learn from the children and, in time, the children learn from them.

Israel, Guy Hasson
"The Levantine Experiments" (2009, shortstory) - 5/5
An 11-year-old girl, having been born, weaned and taught language under nearly absolute isolation until the age of five, is under constant observation as an experiment. Her home--a cell; her fixation--a crack in the wall; her limitations--endless. After two years of dreaming exclusively of the crack and its alienness of the light and dark voids beyond it, she is rescued into another prison.

China, Han Song
"The Wheel of Samsara" (2009, shortstory) - 3/5
From Mars, a girl with wonder in her eyes visits a Tibetan lamasery where 108 wheels spin in the wind--the Wheels of Samara. The 36th wheel, however, is discolored, counter-rotating and makes strange noises in the nightly wind. Back on Mars, she tells her learned father of the phenomenon. He eventually travels to Tibet to witness the relic and is confronted by a reality unknown to his precious science.

Australia/Fiji, Kaaron Warren
"Ghost Jail" (2008, shortstory) - 2/5
The slums called Cewa Flats are evacuated because of, what the Chief of Police says, the sacred ground under the site. Keith and Lisa, journalists from the newspaper, visit the Flats where the residents tell them of the contractible cancer of the breathe. Deciding on a closer look, Lisa discovers the Flats to be haunted and Rashmilla, a spirit contact, informs her that the gravestones render her escape impossible.

China, Yang Ping
"Wizard World" (2009, novelette) - 4/5
Lured into his own death by a character with the handle of Pig Tongue, Xingxing is miffed as to why he can't access his account on the MUD game. Not having left his room for three years, he seeks help within the game under a new account; his Wizard friend Porket helps him discover the widespread hacking of the entire game program. Even in the year 2097, some vindication must be done in person.

Philippines, Dean Francis Alfar
"The Kite of Stars" (2003, shortstory) - 4/5
Only sixteen and love struck by the reckless jaunt of a young, influential astronomer who "only has eyes from the stars", Marie becomes inspired to meet the young stargazer whatever it takes, or whenever. Her grand idea is to ascend in a kite for him to observe her, but the kite maker insists on the impossibility of its construction; regardless, she sets out for sixty years to retrieve the 1,000-part list.

Israel, Nir Yaniv
"Cinderers" (2004, shortstory) - 3/5
On a personal quest of wanton murder, Huey, Louie and Dweye kill various people by various methods, eventually racking up more than eighty deaths. The narrative trio attain singularity when the Demon, an outside force bent on curing the multiple personality war of his mental disease, kills the remaining personalities. However, the inner qualm of the murderer goes deeper than the split personalities.

Palestine, Jamil Nasir
"The Allah Stairs" (1990, shortstory) - 3/5
Laziz was the small, pale, awkward boy in primary school with the recurring bizarre story of sending his father up the Allah Stairs because of the abuse inflicted upon little Laziz. Years later and grown to adults, two ex-classmates revisit the apartment they and Laziz used to live in, where they see the Allah Stairs in Laziz's room. They track the man down for an explanation and reassurance.

Malaysia, Tunku Halim
"Biggest Bassest Bomoh" (1997, shortstory) - 4/5
Idris Ishak is crazy about Zani Kasim, the new secretary who has become his object of worship. Her popularity among the staff and utter beauty doesn't keep him from having a few tries at dates with her. Eventually his reality intruded on his fantasy and he resorted to contacting the witch doctor his friend recommended. His wish for iron-clad reciprocal love becomes true when she visits his home.

France, Aliette de Bodard
"The Lost Xuyan Bride" (2007, novelette) - 4/5
Jonathon Brooks is an American investigator with a curious history of having a deceased wife and fleeing the east state of America for the west state of Xuyan. The case of his missing daughter of a tech company founder sends Brooks on a path with the local ring of mafia, whom the young missing girl is betrothed with, and into the southern country of Mexica and their discriminatory isolation.

Philippines, Kristin Mandigma
"Except from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang" (2007, shortstory) - 5/5
In a meta-fictional twist on a Kafkaesque reality, an editor bitingly responds to a story submission by a fledging author who penned a novel about fighting monster cockroaches on an alien planet (a la Heinlein) while Earth itself is being protected by "alienated capitalist soldiers" (167-168). The Filipino editor questions the author's socialistic allegiances and defends herself as a "baby eater".

Croatia, Aleksandar Ziljak
"An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, with Lydia on My Mind" (1999, shortstory) - 4/5
Zargeb is full of beautiful women. This situation doesn't impinge upon most minds but does drive one man into a voyeuristic indulgence. He secretly seeds houses with "flies" which record the subject's most intimate encounters. He sells these thousands of terabytes of footage, but one gorgeous subject he want to keep for himself. The footage, however, shows her having some rather strange bed partners.

India, Anil Menon
"Into the Night" (2008, shortstory) - 3/5
Displaced from Mumbai to the Pacific island of Meridian, an 82-year-old Brahmin finds the transition difficult in part by his language preference for Tamil, his unfamiliarity with the science his daughter spouts off about, and the alienation from his culture. His emotionally disconnected daughter staunches his chance of integration and the memory of his wife fills him with discomfort in a technological world.

France, Melanie Fazi
"Elegy" (2007, shortstory) - 5/5
Deborah and Benjamin are the parents of twins, whom they adore even after their disappearance from their bedroom. Benjamin regresses to drunken stagnation and emotional detachment while Deborah pleads to a majestic tree on the hill which bores the generic likeness of Adam and Anne; she pleads with sacrificial words and the blood of her hands. Only a human sacrifice, she thinks, can appease it.


Adrift on the Sea of Rains (Apollo Quartet)
Adrift on the Sea of Rains (Apollo Quartet)
by Ian Sales
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.75

4.0 out of 5 stars Glorifying the details where salvation lies, 23 May 2014
Ian Sales' Apollo Quartet is an unabashed glorification of the heydays of NASA infused with speculative science fiction. The first story, a novella titled "Adrift on the Sea of Rains" (2012), is heavily based on material researched from NASA's moon landing integrated with the lore of Nazi wonder-weapons or powerful tools, generally called Wunderwaffe (unrelated to Sales' similarly titled shortstory [2012]).

Before approaching "Adrift on the Sea of Rains", the reader should possess or otherwise assume three attributes: (1) glorify the science and personages of early NASA to the point of idolization, (2) have a high toleration for acronyms (for which there is an appendix), and (3) able to suspend belief for the enjoyment of a story.

The 53 pages of the EPUB file contains 39 pages of story and 11 pages of appendices which feature a list of abbreviations, a glossary, a bibliography, and a list of online resources. The glossary is a mix of NASA historical fact mixed with speculation about an alternative reality of NASA's space program (beyond Apollo 17).

------------

Initially, NASA's space mission were an attempt to supersede Soviet prowess in the same field of study and to gain the upper hand on the new battlefield miles above the Earth, but the American people fell in love with the lore of astronauts and the glory of victory. NASA continued the mission in the name of science, leaving Americans disenfranchised with the glow of space victory. Science began to reign supreme, legends became myth and the whole charade of space exploration became merely a tool of science.

Colonel Vance Peterson, USAF, is station on the moon. That base, Falcon Base, was established in 1984 with modified modules destined for America's space station named Freedom. The original four members were later joined by a crew of eight. The central focus of Falcon Base is The Bell, a relic of Nazi science left over from World War II, which the Americans stole and have been experimenting with for years. The primary scientist, Kendall, said that the only way to truly test The Bell's function was to put it in near-Vacuum. So, up The Bell went to the moon, to Falcon Base with its 100-kilowatt nuclear reactor.

The atmosphere at the base, once driven by routine and command, falls into uncertainty when the war blankets Earth. The American bases carry no word to the moon and soon the Earth is obliviously a dead planet. The men on the moon are the last humans alive, all abandoned by their family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues and government. However, their one hope rests on Kendall's persistent meddling with The Bell, a construction "nine feet in diameter and twelve feet high" which houses the central experiment of a substance called "Xerum-525" (sounds exactly like this mythical Nazi wonder-weapon).

Fortunately for the crew of Falcon Base, The Bell offers hope. Though only Kendall may understand, sometimes superficially at that, the device, the result of the Nazi gadget is a jump through alternative worlds. Before each jump, Peterson is sent to the moon's surface to witness any visual change on Earth. After so many successive rounds of jumping, the Earth, home, has remained a barren landscape scarred by the tensions between the Americans and the Soviets.

Peterson has had his own run-ins with the Soviets and has even had the rare pleasure of killing a communist while flying. His hatred of the Soviets know no end while his ache for his return to America holds aloft the hope he meekly instills in The Bell. Though the others in the crew are not as disciplined as Peterson, he keeps himself sane by running through his routine and hoping to find an Earth that is close to the one that had seen die before their eyes...

...then one appears, a beautiful blue marble. While "the men on Falcon Base can listen, but they cannot be heard" (21-22), no one responds to their calls. One thing is noticeable though: there' s one space station in orbit around the Earth. Memories of America's station, Freedom, offers them additional hope that rescue or acknowledgement of their plight is possible. In order to secure that possibility of rescue, the astronauts-cum-scientists brainstorm or ways on reaching either Earth or Freedom. When the numbers are tabulated, trajectories plotted and fuel concentrated, the likelihood of escaping from moon's desolation looks good.

Peterson begins his ascent from the moon and descent toward Earth.

------------

Obviously, this must be a pet project of Sales. The amount of detail imparts an authenticity to the novella, a deft touch of attention to detail that shows careful consideration. While this detail doesn't exactly make for light reading, it does add an element of first-person perspective to the story--what's important to the astronaut is carried through the narrative, be it the physics of flight control or controlling the waves of uncertainty.

With Peterson's fixation of hope comes the obverse niggling doubt; he doesn't understand The Bell and finds it difficult to place hope on a piece of Nazi construction and its borderline batty scientist, Kendall. Regardless of all subjective observations, there is one truth to Peterson: he is stuck on the moon, over three hundred thousand miles away from a dead Earth. Among the subjective observations and objective truths lay the emotional states of his past and present; he fosters distaste for Commies while feeling nostalgia for being in cockpit of various jets (e.g., the SR-91 and the F-108D). These mission characterize Peterson as a brash, gung-ho pilot unfazed by danger or confrontation.

------------

Considering the series is a thematic Quartet, I hope to see the remaining three stories follow a similar feel: a foundation of hard details supporting a speculative wonder clouded by an atmosphere of isolation and desperation. The remaining stories in the Quartet are:
· Book 2, novella: "The Eye Which the Universe Beholds Itself" (2013)
· Book 3, novella: "Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above" (2013)
· Book 4, "All That Outer Space Allows" (yet-to-be published)


Walking On Glass
Walking On Glass
by Iain Banks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Layers and parallelism of influence tantalize the reader, 21 April 2014
This review is from: Walking On Glass (Paperback)
I'm no stranger to the works of Iain Banks: I've read six of his fiction novels and all of his science fiction, all totaling twenty books. All of his books (literally, all of them) linger in my mind with unique storytelling. Though I love them all, I've only reread The Algebraist (2004) and The State of the Art (1989). Again, though I love them all, they are difficult for me to synopsis, as if they are beyond the reach of my circumspection. At the end of 2012, I read Walking on Glass and began to write a review for the book when my laptop crashed. It took me a year to get around to fixing the bugger and, lo and behold, all the files were intact. So, I knew I had to reread this tantalizing piece of fiction.

Walking on Glass sounds quirky enough, speculative enough to warrant the purchase and accolade of being chosen for my 100th book of 2012. When opening an Iain Banks novel, I have never known disappointment... slight dismay or mild boredom, yes, but never discontent. Walking on Glass is the first novel of Banks to really push my mental envelop toward grasping the linkages between the three stories. Only three stories, you may guffaw, but the fictional distance and hazy parallelisms throw the reader for a loop. Bear with it, absorb it, and try to relish the experience of being challenged... something which 99% of today's fiction has forgotten to do.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Graham Park is in love. But Sara Ffitch [sic] is an enigma to him, a creature of almost perverse mystery. Steven Grout is paranoid--and with justice. He knows that They are out to get him. They are. Quiss, insecure in his fabulous if ramshackle castle, is forced to play interminable impossible games. The solution to the oldest of all paradoxical riddles will release him. But he must find an answer before he knows the question.

Park, Grout, Quiss--no trio could be further apart. But their separate courses are set for collision..."

------------

Story #1:
Graham has been steeping in the tepid water of love for weeks, fuzzily reminiscing of his first encounter with the intoxicatingly beautiful Sara ffitch ("not one big `f'; two little ones" [97]), all thanks to his flamboyantly gay friend Slater. Though not a typical romantic first meeting, Graham tolerates her sour disposition after her recent separation from her husband. Weeks go by and still he swims in the syrupy sea of expectation with the lovely lass of Sara. Walks along the canal, visits to the zoo, loving confessions over the phone--Graham plays the waiting game for her love and attention. She's not forthcoming with beginning a new relationship, though she still sees and speaks of her biker fling named Stock. Lightly laden with jealousy of Stock, Graham looks forward to later today when he is allowed to actually entire the home of the hesitant vixen.

Story #2:
Amid the persecuting eyes of his sewer facilities managers and under the duress of their hidden microwave beams which cause him to sweat and panic, Steven Grout does the unexpected and quits his job. Fearing their reprisal, Steven makes a break for it and heads to the unemployment office, where he greets the receptionist and officer with a cynical degree of disdain because they, too, train their microwave beams on him! Yet to qualify for unemployment because of their sinister planning (or because of his voluntary leaving), Steven leaves the office dodging hubcap laser beams, sugaring gas tanks, avoiding his droning impassable landlady, and sulking with his well-earned money and a local drunk from the bar. A man tolerating misfortune leads an insufferable life.

Story #3:
In a castle made of illegible blocks of books, Quiss is subjected to spend his days away from the Therapeutic Wars for his travesties while attempting to solve two things: the impossible complexities of nonsense games and the nebulous answer to the question, "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?" Thousands of days are spent learning the rules and playing one-dimensional chess, open-plan go, spotless dominoes, and Chinese scrabble with his only partner in the castle--Ajayi--but his main focus is exploring the depths of the castle and torturing information out of the cherubic masked servants. Being imprisoned angers Quiss, yet several of his discoveries cause him to question his reality and the reason why he's being used, punished, and borderline tortured.

------------

I love the respective quotes by The Times and Observer: "A feast of horrors, variously spiced with incest, conspiracy, and cheerful descriptions of torture... fine writing" and "Inexorably powerful... sinister manipulations and magnetic ambiguities". I usually disregard any sort of benediction from other authors or reviewers on a book's cover, but these two hit the nail on the head, especially the bit about "magnetic ambiguities".

It's exactly these "magnetic ambiguities" which tantalized me endlessly. Even when writing this review, bursts of additional insight are ricocheting off my previous ideas, creating echoes of reinforcing understanding. Though the book's own synopsis says the three plot lines are "set for collision", the actual degree of crossover/influence/relevance/analogy depends on the reader's perspective: (1) superficial, (2) insightful and (3) metaphorical.

1. Superficial. The overlapping of the plots of Graham and Grout is nearly singular, but the resulting influence Grout has on Graham's life is dramatic; what could have been emotionally chaotic turned out just to be an emotional train wreck instead. Grout's action of physical sabotage ends up probably saving Graham's life but also nearly ending Grout's own life. The storyline with the weakest link is the Quiss plot. For a reader to disregard this entire thread would dilute the book of most of its enticing perspectives; however, the books of the tower can reflect the towers of books in Grout's home, thereby providing a weak psychological element between Quiss and Grout.

2. Insightful. There are some scenes in each plot which focus on a commonality between two or three of the plots: (A) tunnel, (B) books, and (C) game.

A. When "tunnel" is used in each plot, the literal inference is a passageway, a way to gain access to somewhere; this access into Sara's home for Graham, access into safety for Grout, and access into knowledge for Quiss.

B. Books are more prominent in the Grout and Quiss plots, books as a prison and books as a blanket, respectively, but Graham also has an affair with books--Graham sees books as translucent windows into a soul, a superficial and inaccurate glimpse in the end.

C. Each character is involved in a game of their own, whether it's obvious like the pointless games Quiss is involved in, the cat and mouse game between Sara's love and the distance she keeps, and Grout's vigilance against the vague powers of Them. Victory can be seen as a chance at redemption (Quiss), a chance for love reciprocated (Graham) or a chance at escaping Them (Grout); ultimately, victory is to reveal the truth of their respective reality, in one form or another.

3. Metaphotical. Adopting both the superficial and insightful elements of inspection, one last attempt at probing the novel needs to be taken to understand the absurd life which Quiss and Ajayi endure... and absurd is what it is, as Ajayi reflects, "What the hell was the point of trying to rationally to analyse what was fundamentally irrational? ... [L]ife was basically absurd, unfair and-ultimately--pointless" (129). At a deeper level, the absurdity they live in and the impossibility they play with could merely be a fantasy experienced by Grout; he himself lives in a world of absurdity and impossibility and this becomes clearer towards the end of the novel after he is hospitalized. My own metaphor of the castle made from books, you may ask? Well, it could be a metaphor of (A) knowledge and (B) experience:

A. Knowledge can be manipulated, tested from theory to application, and it can stand as the scaffolding for the way we understand the world. The higher part of the castles walls are stacked books which Quiss sometimes destroys in frustration but the minions of the castle eventually replace with another tome. It's Ajayi who takes these tomes from the walls in order to understand more of the reality she inhabits, which opposes Quiss efforts to probe deeper and deeper into the solid bedrock of the castle--that of experience.

B. Memories of experience are often malleable from their onset but soon solidify into a vague yet concrete sensation. Just as the tunnels below the castle act as a labyrinth, so too are the cornucopia of experiences and memories we all have; navigating each memory individually in chronological is impossible, which parallels Quiss frustrating attempts to map out and understand the maze or memories under the castle. Eventually, one memory (one room) provides an impossible yet remarkably clear vision of reality and, of course, the experience is addictive.

We nail together our own scaffolding of understanding of the world based on our bedrock of experience and the shifting, temporary glimpses of knowledge we all have. However, those experiences can be false: Graham's reluctant belief to trust love at first sight and Grout's delusion belief of Them trying to destroy his life. Regardless of new information, the hopeless romantic will always be a hopeless romantic and the conspiring paranoid will always remain a conspiring paranoid.

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Whichever way you interpret Banks' novel, there's always something more underlying are laying parallel to your thought process. It's like that nagging shadow in your peripheral vision that's never there when you turn around... but you know it's there. For a real wide-eyed, even more introspective look at Walking on Glass, I highly recommend taking a look at "Coalescence and the fiction of Iain Banks" by David Leishman after you've formed your own opinions: (1) insight into how Iain Banks weaved in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979), (2) the importance of color and omen in the first few pages, and (3) the promise and destruction of resolution to force the formation of opinion.


Skeleton Crew
Skeleton Crew
by Stephen King
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Great sampler of horror subgenres, 21 April 2014
This review is from: Skeleton Crew (Paperback)
Though a huge science fiction fan, I do occasionally dabble in the genre of horror, but the relationship is tetchy. It's been my experience that most horror stories revolve around the occult, possession, supernatural or any combination of the three; these stories aren't the least bit frightening. There is a certain flavor of horror fiction which tickles my sense of horror and now I know this type of fiction is called body horror, which is a more directly physical horror than the nebulous dark demons haunting the souls of deserving victims. Two lesser known body horror books I've read are Jeffrey Thomas' Punktown (2000) and Jeremy Robert Johnson's Angel Dust Apocalypse (2005).

Thankfully, Skeleton Crew has a few body horror stories which satisfied my need. Also, this collection separates itself from Night Shift (1978) as it doesn't have as many stories featuring randomly possessed objects which kill unwary victims. That got kind of boring in retrospect. While King isn't my favorite author, I don't have much choice or experience to say otherwise in the genre of horror... but Dan Simmons' The Terror (2007) and Hyperion (1989) still haunt me.

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The Mist (1980, novella) - 4/5 - David, his wife Steff and their son Billy take shelter in their home when a freak storm rolls across the lake leaving trees uprooted and a thick, opaque mist settled over the water. David, Billy and their tetchy neighbor Norton go to Federal Foods in town to buy supplies only to become overwhelmed by the mist and in the middle of a murderous, tentacled fog from the nearby Arrowhead Project. 130 pages

Here There Be Tygers (1968, shortstory) - 3/5 - Miss Bird, the third-grade teacher, has it out for Charles and he's always known it. Even something as simple as going to the bathroom can stress poor Charles . his need to urinate, as Miss Bid calls it, impels him to sheepishly pass the eyes of all the other students and walk to the boys' room, where a crouching tiger awaits him. Stepping out again and accessing the situation, another boy comes to check his reason. 5 pages

The Monkey (1980, novelette) - 3/5 - One of Hal's sons discovers a nappy-haired monkey doll with crashing cymbals in the attic. This causes Hal great alarm as he remembers throwing it down a well twenty years ago after a series of deaths related to the monkey's jang-jang-jang. It keeps coming up in his life after finding it in his own father's belongings. Now, the monkey makes its unexpected ominous appearance. 38 pages

Cain Rose Up (1968, shortstory) - 4/5 - Garrish returns to his university boarding house after a difficult exam, which he probably aced to maintain his 4.0 GPA but shares in his friend's opinion of its difficulty. His friends are leaving for the summer and his only companion in the room is a .352 rifle loaned from the university. Cleaning and assembling the rifle, Garrish recants the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, then takes aim and fires at a girls' dorm. 7 pages

Mrs. Todd's Shortcut (1984, novelette) - 4/5 - Homer recalls his strange experiences with the eccentric out-of-towner Mrs. Todd. Though compassionate and social, she has one quirk which both annoys and piques old Homer. Mrs. Todd pines for a shorter route between Castle Lake and Bangor--normally 156.4 miles. Through her trials and errors in her Mercedes, she hits 129.2 miles, then 116.4 miles, just short of 79 miles as the crow flies... until... 26 pages

The Jaunt (1981, novelette) - 5/5 - Prior to jaunting his wife and two children to Mars, Mark recants the part-tale and -myth of the invention of the jaunt. In 1987, the Jaunt was funded by the US government and the sole researcher was Victor Carune. In is farm, his accidental experiment transports two of his fingers across the barn, followed by mice which come out stunned, then die. The curious children urge on the morbid conclusion of the story. 26 pages

The Wedding Gig (1980, shortstory) - 4/5 - Mike Scollay, a true-born Irish-American and serious liquor smuggler, hires a jazz band to play for his sister's wedding. Their high rate fo pay for 1027 is clue to the increased likelihood of gang violence as the ceremony. Also dangerous is Scollay's sensitivity about his sister's massive weight, ugly looks and engagement to the scrawny Italian groom. To fume the Irish gangster, a Greek messenger arrives. 16 pages

Paranoid: A Chant (1985, poem) - 4/5 - Perched in his apartment, a paranoid man silently peers outside his window and in all facets of life at the creeping intrusion into his life: agent's outside, agents across the street, agents crawling all the way to his toilet. The man envisions intrusions and remains delusions regardless of their physical lack of physical infiltration to his abode. His thoughts reflect his monotonous and delusion existence. 4 pages

The Raft (1982, novelette) - 4/5 - The dawn of adulthood at the dusk of summer is an intoxicating allure for nostalgic dalliances. Deke's brutish impulsiveness leads a group of four, including his brainy roommate Randy, out to a lake where a pontoon sits at the center. Their initial bravado for the swim turns into horror when a blob dissolves one of the swimmers, leaving the rest facing death by blob or death by cold. 29 pages

Word Processor of the Gods (1983, shortstory) - 5/5 - His dead brother was an alcoholic, wife-beating jerk, but he had a beautiful wife and a genius son. Just two weeks after his brother's death, his nephew gives him a birthday gift of his own creations: a mongrel of a computer, part IBM, Erector set and Liol train transformers. At first use, the word processor literally processes his typed word and the deletion thereof. First a picture appears, then gold bullion. What else foes he deserve? 19 pages

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (1981, shortstory) - 4/5 - A rich elderly man tells a tale of a poker game which happened in 1919. A man who had recently returned from India decides to join the game but makes it absolutely clear that he cannot touch another person. The pot of the last hand of the night soars hundreds of dollars and the same solitary man wins big but the belligerence of another player perverts his taboo. The money may be lost, but the story is not. 17 pages

Beachworld (1984, shortstory) - 3/5 - The entire ship and one crew member are totally pulverized; the remaining two crew are left deserted on a planet covered with dunes, after dunes, after dunes without water or greenery. Shapiro observes Rand slip into a hypnotic fixation for the planet while he attempt to beacon for rescue. When it does come, Shapiro is quick to push the lift off as he's leery of the planet. 18 pages

The Reaper's Image (1969, shortstory) - 4/5 - In an ancient house full of worthless wonders rest a few priceless artifacts, including a rare DeIver mirror which Mr. Carlin is cautious to show and which Mr. Spangler is eager to inspect. The objective history of the mirror interests him most as he examines the authenticity of the piece but his unconcerned for the subjective myths of its reported viewers' disappearances... until he looks just a little closer. 8 pages

Nona (1978, novelette) - 4/5 - Childhood memory of rats in the cellar and lost opportunity for reciprocated love cascades into a tumultuous, prolonged affair with deep love-stricken longings for black-haired women with abrupt endings. One his sentences for life, the young man recollects his criminal-themed affair with Nona, a girl who stole his heart, started his murder spree and disappeared from his life. 39 pages

For Owen (1985, poem) - 3/5 - A school on Fruit Street spawns the imagination of a child into a plethora of categories for children in the same school based on characteristics of common fruit characteristics: small blueberries, fat watermelons, and the grouping nature of bananas. However, there are times when fruits act like other fruits, yet the subterfuge is both a façade and a unnatural perversity. 2 pages

Survivor Type (1982, shortstory) - 5/5 - Scorned during much of his childhood and university career, a young doctor exploits his Irish heritage during his doctor residency and later life as a surgeon. When his dollar doesn't carry itself for enough into investments, he turns to importing heroin. This is the very same drug he is left with on a deserted island where his smuggling ship crashes and he's left with very little to eat. 20 pages

Uncle Otto's Truck (1983, shortstory) - 2/5 - A series of business ventures between Otto, born way back in 1905, and his financial partner Mr. McCutcheon ends in a huge tract of land around Castle Viewm a red Cresswell truck and a sour division between opinions of a business idea. Seventy years later, Otto's involvement with his partner's death under the same truck spurs controversy in the same town, which haunts Quinten's whole adulthood. 17 pages

Morning Deliveries (1985, shortstory) - 4/5 - Spike's morning delivery of dairy products starts with his standard list: milk, cream, yogurt, cyanide gas, nightshade, and a tarantula. Some deliveries are exact according to the household's list, but other houses are dealt deadly surprises. His route ends with a sense of expectation for drinking with his friend Rocky and an expected conclusion to his services--a home with a blood splotch. 5 pages

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (1980, shortstory) - 4/5 - With only hours left of validation on Rocky's car, he and Leo get absolutely hammered on Iron City beer while enjoying an evening cruise. Hopelessly decrepit, Rocky has no chance at passing another inspection until he see an old high school friend with a car shop. Soon, with stories swapped and backslaps given, the friend gets wasted on beer. Meanwhile, Rocky simmers with hatred for the milkman who slept with his wife. 15 pages

Gramma (1984, novelette) - 4/5 - When George was five years old, he was scared of the white, fleshy sack he called a grandmother; he cried when she wanted to hug him. Now twelve years of age, George's brother is in the hospital and his mother is by his side, leaving George alone at home with the grandmother in progressively poorer health. Steeling himself against fear, he checks on her room and finds her dead, but her mysterious past haunts him still. 31 pages

The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet (1984, novella) - 5/5 - A rising writer and his wife, his agent and his wife, and a long recovering alcoholic editor dabble in the macabre topic of writer suicides. The skittish author's wife doesn't withhold the editor's bizarre tale of Reg Thorpe. After Reg's initial success, he and his own wife withdrew to Kansas and, due to his growing strange behavior, cut off their electricity. Even more bizarre, the editor adopted Reg's fantasy of having fairies in the typewriter. 51 pages

The Reach (1981, shortstory) - 4/5 - Off the New England coast sits an island--simple, unremarkable, yet home to all things for Stella, an elderly lady who's never left the island. Having experienced dreadful winters, the funeral of her husband and the uproar caused by a perverted outsider, Stella had had no wish to cross the Reach, the water between her island and the mainland. With frail health and inviting mummers of welcome for her dead husband, he considers crossing. 21 pages


The Neutronium Alchemist: The Nights Dawn trilogy: Book Two: 2/3 (Nights Dawn Trilogy 2)
The Neutronium Alchemist: The Nights Dawn trilogy: Book Two: 2/3 (Nights Dawn Trilogy 2)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An impressive task and challenge, more fill than fun, 11 April 2014
Investing time in Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy is heart-breaking. I finished Book 1 in fifteen days during a long holiday, but I polished off Book 2 during a month of full-time work--all 30 days of it. While reading the 393,000 words of The Neutronium Alchemist, I could have read six shorter (and better) novels in the same amount of time. At the same time, I'm trying to make space on my bookshelves; with these tomes will have been completed, and most likely sold to my favorite second-hand bookstore, they will free up some much needed shelf room... though not enough for the 50 books which are stacked elsewhere. Alas, another book, another review, another slot made available on my to-read shelves.

Talking about numbers here, comparatively, Book 1 (The Reality Dysfunction) has 385,000 words and is 1,094 pages long, which is 46 pages shorter than Book 2. As these books are part of a trilogy, they must be read in order, with a behemoth conclusion in Book 3: The Naked God that tips the scales at 1,332 pages and 469,000 words (!). This is a trilogy with a total of 1,247,000 words--be prepared for the battle: focus, focus, focus and frequently consult the "Cast of Characters" appendix (pages 1139-1144).

Rear cover synopsis:
"The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation's peaceful existence.

On planets and asteroids, individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the Final Night.

In such desperate times, the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr. Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist--so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert must find Dr. Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated.

But he's not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to use the ultimate doomsday device."

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The aftermath of the Lalonde possession is a spreading wave of possession through the Confederation by Quinn's cohorts.

A Saldana planet, Ombey, is invaded by a trio of the walking dead, but the swift action of the police force limits the spread of possession to a single town which becomes overrun with the malicious dead-returned. While many of the returned are unscrupulous heathens and sybarites, a handful of them actually have a kind side and take to caring for children, who are not possessed, and taking them back to civilization away from the growing red cloud which hangs over the village. However they channel their powers, the humans are worried... very worried:

"The energistic power which was the inheritance of every possessed was capable of near-miraculous feats as it bent the fabric of reality to a mind's whim. As well as its destructive potential, items could be made solid at the flicker of a thought. It was also capable of reinforcing a body to resist almost any kind of assault as well as enhancing its physical strength. Wounds could be healed at almost the same rate they were inflicted." (181)

The very progressive, technological center of the Confederation is New California, a planet with strong defenses and a strong security force, both of which fall to the man who is possessed by Al Capone. This criminal mastermind of the early 20th century find that, even though 600 years in the future, the basic elements of running a city still run true for taking over an entire planet. For Al Capone, already corrupt, with power comes lust for more power and there's a galaxy of planets just waiting to be possessed!

But Capone is no dummy criminal. He changes the complete economy of New California, ruthlessly punishes those who stand in his way, and probes deeper into the powers which the possessed have. When the bodiless souls in beyond want to enter a body, Capone converses with the all-seeing souls to gather information about activities from around the Confederation; secrets and plans are revealed to Capone, and an enticing bit of information has come to him: a woman named Dr. Mzu has information about the most destruction weapon ever known to mankind--the Alchemist.

When Dr. Mzu's planet was destroyed by the Omuta's thirty years ago, much of her experience was invested in creating the Alchemist. Aside from Mzu, nobody really knows what it does except that it can destroy a star. In the realm of the dead exists souls from every planet, including Earth and Mzu's home planet; logically, there must exist and assistant of Mzu's, someone who can help build a new Alchemist if the original Alchemist cannot be discovered. This is Capone's chance to own the great weapon known to man when he also knows that Mzu has escaped and is attempted to retrieve her deadly device.

Also chasing the hermetic Mzu is Joshua, kind of as a favor to Ione Saldana and partly because his duty of gallivanting across the galaxy always includes these kinds of things. With his capable crew (and with Ione unknowingly stowed as a mechanical serjent), Joshua tracks down Mzu's movements across space and is followed by Confederation Navy spies who also quest for Mzu's capture and, with it, knowledge of what exactly the Alchemist is capable of.

Not to be forgotten, Dexter Quinn still roams open space with a burning vendetta against Earth. Being his primary target, Quinn shoots for Earth but is quickly deterred by his lack of preparation. Instead, Quinn visits a planet with a long history of strife and war--Nyvan, humankind's first attempt at colonizing a world with multiple ethnicities. Due to the fractured nature of the social and governmental landscape, Quinn easily pins all the nationalistic forces against each other. Meanwhile, in the derelict asteroids orbiting the planet, Quinn is planting fusion bombs for a grand spectacle of his vision: Final Night.

Pregnant, frightened, free and rich, Louise Kavanagh, along with her sister Genevieve and the gentlemanly possessed Titreano, head to the Sol system in order to ultimately find a ride to Tranquility. However, their progress is limited by Titrano's interference with electronics on both the starship and at the Mars' transfer facility. Louise considers Earth an impossibility but still thinks Tranquility is the best choice for her recuperation.

Tranquility becomes a hub of activity when it's discovered that Capone is marshalling forces of voidhawks to fight the Confederation. His rate of expansion is impressive, so the Confederation governance takes extraordinary measures to fight the incoming fleet of warships. Their information isn't exact, so precautions are spread across many regions, a fault which may either hamper Capone's progress or seal his victory in one decisive battle. Inside Tranquility, Jay Hilton, a young refugee from Lalonde, innocently plays with the xenoc (Kiint) youth named Haile. Haile builds a remarkable sandcastle, a structure similar to one which was viewed by Ione but one which should never have been seen by Haile or anyone else in the Kiint race.

Questions and eyebrows are raised at Kiint's passive attitude towards the possession of human bodies from the souls of the beyond. They maintain that all intelligent species must face this turn of events with their own fortitude, as each species will have a different solution to their possession. All information is scant about the Kiint's history as is the reality of the beyond. When some of the possessed are captured and interrogated, reassurance is given to one scientist when he learns that time does indeed pass in the beyond, therefore space exists and so, logically, they dead can be beaten with familiar techniques: "It [the Beyond] obviously exists, therefore it must have some physical parameters, a set of governing laws; but they [scientists] cannot detect or define them" (666). However, the captured possessed have their own ideas of justice and they don't play by our rules. When the Confederation take the possessed to court, hell breaks loose all over again.

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Rather than focusing exclusively on the physical war between the able-bodied humans and the possessed minds of other humans, The Neutronium Alchemist also highlights the metaphysical battle between the two. For the bodily humans, it's damned if they do join yet damned if they don't join:

"I'm sorry, Ralph, but as I said, you simply cannot threaten me. Have you worked out why yet? Have you worked out the real reason I will win? It is because you will ultimately join me. You are going to die, Ralph. Today. Tomorrow. A year from now. If you're lucky, in fifty years time. It doesn't matter when. It is entropy, it is fate, it is the way the universe works. Death, not love, conquers all in the end. And when you die, you will find yourself in the beyond. That is when you and I will become brother and sister in the same fellowship. United against the living. Coveting the living." (165)

The damned, the supposed eternal souls living in the beyond, still live with the "naked emotions which drive us all" and they "know exactly what we are in our true hearts, and it's not nice, not nice at all" (1079); their intrinsic drive for domination, possession and submission rests in their very nature.

This is an interesting turn on the once uni-faceted possessors who were once only out for two things: bloodlust and domination. It's refreshing, in light of contrast, to see some figures of the possessed control their emotions for the benefit of the children, for the benefit of the innocent. Though not the majority, by far, at least there is a hint of hope in Hamilton's prose that allows for some of the possessed to maintain the humane side of humanity rather than the more pessimistic animalistic side which is more often portrayed.

Originally, in my review of The Reality Dysfunction, I had a difficult time accepting two premises of Hamilton's trilogy: (a) the very nature of dead souls living in the Beyond and (b) the nature of the Edenist affinity link which has a genetic source for its non-interceptable mental transmission (as for the Kiint [1089]). Considering the created universe of The Night's Dawn trilogy is 600 years in the future, you would think that everything which could have ever been observed in the universe, all that which is affected by laws of electromagnetic forces of other forces in the predicted unified theory, would have already been predicted and/or observed. Therefore, the affinity and Beyond are part of the physical universe, in one way or another, and should easily have been predicted, observed or measured.

Yet, there are some not-so-subtle hints about the reality of the beyond: "[T]hey [scientists] sought out the elusive transdimensional interface" (800). There are also vague, unquotable inferences that both phenomena have quantum origins, perhaps non-interceptable because of quantum entanglement (or as Einstein had called it, spooky action as a distance [spooky... possession... get it?]). This theory of mine is merely a self-assurance that Hamilton has everything neatly planned out and won't leave any loose science ends hanging; I'm assuring myself that The Naked God will herald all the answers to all the nagging questions in my mind.

One huge improvement in Book 2 is its typographical consistency. In The Reality Dysfunction, particularly in the second half, there were many abbreviated inconsistencies, changes in font, missing bold face and compound adjectives. I'm happy to report that The Neutronium Alchemist is much better in these regards, but still isn't perfect; granted, you can't exactly expect it to but still I, one reader, can point out at least things:

a) Helium-3 is used as fuel for the ships in the Confederation's fusion reactors. Rather than use the lengthy term "Helium-3", Hamilton understandably uses the accepted He3 abbreviation for the isotope. This would be fine but he also occasionally uses subscript for the "3" as in He3: notably, on pages 1049, 1050 and 1096 (three out of eighteen isn't so consistent).

b) Hamilton's use of the word prone greatly annoys me. Though the definition of the word is commonly used to imply a recumbent, flat resting position, the actual definition of the word prone suggests that the subject in laying "face downward", in contrast to the word supine which means "having the face upward". Hamilton's disuse of supine and his awkward uses of prone are curious:

i. "Black figures were lying prone on the feed roads" (66);

ii. "The sidewalk was littered with prone bodies" (99);

iii. "He gingerly positioned Gerald's buttocks on the side of the bed, then lifted his legs up and around until his charge was lying prone on the cushioning" (106);

iv. "The captain was lying prone on his acceleration couch, unconscious. His fingers were still digging into the cushioning, frozen in a claw-like posture, nails broken by the strength he'd used to maul the fabric. Blood dribbling out of his nose made sticky blotches on his cheeks." (174);

v. "[T]he four crew members lying prone on their bulky acceleration couches" (328);

vi. "Two ceiling-mounted waldo arms had been equipped with sensor arrays, like bundles of fat white gun muzzles, which they were sweeping slowly and silently up and down the prone body" (445);

vii. "They even perceived Dariat and Tatiana lying prone on the escape pod's acceleration couches" (960);

viii. "Alkad Mzu was lying prone on one of the spare acceleration couches" (1104).

For the most part, The Neutronium Alchemist paddles along at a fairly even pace with a predictable lengthy action scene towards the conclusion. Yes, there's a car chase scene but the hitch is it's exacerbated by the coming of a megaton asteroid. Like a 100-car freight train crossing the Midwest (something I have familiarity with), the hulking mass of the plot moves along steadily, surely and with one hell of a momentum; once it gets rolling, it's hard to interrupt or shift. Hamilton should stick to his complicated, interweaving plots rather than dabble in occasional and horribly awkward poetic passages, such as: "He was sure that someone had been watching the incident. A spoor of trepidation hung in the air like the scent of a summer flower" (812).

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With a few minor annoyances, a few premises which are unbelievable, a few typographical errors and a rather lengthy stretch of mediocrity (though the length is impressive, the performance is not [wink], wink]), The Neutronium Alchemist, and the entire Night's Dawn trilogy as a whole I assume, is a moderately enjoyable task rather than a continually adventurous excursion. I need a break from the series so, while on another long holiday, I'll be dabbling in some other, hopefully, more profound literature.
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The Reality Dysfunction: The Nights Dawn trilogy: Book One: 1 (Nights Dawn Trilogy 1)
The Reality Dysfunction: The Nights Dawn trilogy: Book One: 1 (Nights Dawn Trilogy 1)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Delectable SF space opera with hard-to-swallow premises, 31 Mar 2014
I've plowed through most of Hamilton's tomes, excluding the Greg Mandel trilogy (1993-1995) and The Night's Dawn trilogy (1997-2000). I'm not a big fan of series, so I've always held off reading these expansive sets of books. I haven't heard much about the Greg Mandel series but The Night's Dawn trilogy seems to be the stuff of legend, whispers passed about its length and depth. Considering I've liked everything else Hamilton has written, including the collection of Manhattan in Reverse (2011) and his most recent novel Great North Road (2012), I finally decided to procure the weighty volumes and delve into the first tome while on 2-week holiday. This turned out to be excellent timing as it ended up taking fifteen days to polish off the 1,094 pages.

One additional note, in case you weren't already aware, is that the original US edition of The Reality Dysfunction is split into two volumes: Emergence (1997) and Expansion (1997). The later edition combines them, thankfully, into one large volume... the same volume which is featured here.

Rear cover synopsis:
"In AD 2600 the human race is finally beginning to realize its full potential. Hundreds of colonized planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature's boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary space-born creatures. Huge fleets of sentient trader starships thrive on the wealth created by the industrialization of entire star systems. And throughout inhabited space, the Confederation Navy keeps the peace. A true golden age is within our grasp.

But now something has gone catastrophically wrong. On a primitive colony planet, a renegade criminal's chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of all our fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it "The Reality Dysfunction." It is the nightmare that has prowled beside us since the beginning of history."

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Joshua Calvert hopes to one day refurbish the inheritance of his father's starship--the Lady Macbeth. His intuition for discovery proves fruitful in the decimated ruins of an xenoc (alien) orbital. The resulting dust ring, which orbits a gas giant, is picked by scavengers and the finds sold to a nearby research facility. The most significant finds are often intact leaves, trees and daily objects. When Joshua is pressed by opportunistic scavengers, he retreats in a large piece to debris only to find the mother lode: a ice-encapsulated computer core. The sale of the core allows Joshua to become a local celebrity, upgrade his ship's systems, and even bed a few broads in the process.

One of his prized notches on his bedpost is bedding the Lord of Ruin, a title given to the bitek (organically grown) orbital's ruler, whose bloodline is shared with the regal Saldana family, of which Alastair II is the reigning king over the Kulu Kingdom. Though part of the royal bloodline, the Lord of Ruin, Ione, and her affinity-linked (mind/message-linked) named Tranquility operate outside the sphere of influence of the royal family. Tranquility was originally established as an outpost to research the Laymil artifacts.

The facility researching the Laymil artifacts also investigates what caused the catastrophic demise of the entire massive orbital body. The leading theories include suicide and attack, but with centuries having passed since their destruction, the only source of new information will come from the data core which Joshua found. The researchers discover that stores amid the data are sets of sensory recordings, memories of the extinct xenoc race.

One of these researchers is Dr. Alkad Mzu, one of the few survivors of her homeworld's utter destruction by antimatter by the hand of the Omuta navy. Her homeworld of Garissa is now but a memory, a memory which burns deeply with a sense of hate, revenge and justice that spans her 30-year confinement on Tranquility. Ione's father made it his prerogative to keep Mzu within Tranquility so that she is unable to seek out that revenge with her fabled Alchemist weapon of purported unimaginable power. The weapon is hidden relic of the navy from Garissa who once wanted to strike the genocidal blow to their enemy the Omuta, who have only now started to emerge from their own 30-year quarantine. The Confederation of human worlds welcomes the genocidal brutes back into the fold of human affairs but the allegorical sins of a father are carried as a burden by the son.

Nothing is as burdensome as settling a new colony, like on the newly opened EuroChristian-ethnic world Lalonde. Emigrating from Earth, fine families gamble with their lives to have new beginnings, but wasters from Earth's acrologies, the chaff of humanity, also tag along for hopes of a better future... or a darker non-future like Quinn Dexter hopes for. Gaining trust among the innocent villagers, Quinn establishes a separate house for the hard-working cons but Quinn is also gaining respect through fear by the other cons, who see him as a necessarily brutish leader. Quinn and his men's brutish sexual acts of shamelessness reflect their growing infatuation with releasing the Serpent from themselves, inviting the Light Bringer into their lives.

In the early days of the universe's formation, an intelligent race of energy being arose to sublime into the vacuum of space. Roaming the empty vacuum for the sake of study, the race of Ly-cilph visit star systems and study the interesting forms of life which are scattered among the stars. Rarely do these physical being interest the energy-patterned Ly-cilph, but some curious humans on Lalonde seem to welcome to energy, hungry for power. The resulting local influence of energy causes an unnatural rift in space-time, whereby the departed souls of mankind cross the gulf between the eternal yet painful observation and longing for physicality and that of our world.

The souls enter willing bodies in anguish. Once subsumed, the mind of the body cringes in the back of the brain while the transported soul becomes the dominant persona, and with it an incredible ability to manipulate matter and energy. White fire flies from their fingertips by their very wish, causing destruction where ever they tread. Not wasting the ability and sympathizing with the bodiless souls beyond, the possessed soon torture other people into begging for mercy, an opportunity which the sinister souls pounce upon and force themselves into the body. Their powers grow greater and more and more of them converge on the same city, manifesting historical wonders from yesteryears and forming an impenetrable red cloud which blocks out the horrible sight of the vastness of space. Happy with their corporal existence, they aim to expand the cloud, vanquish the world and transport the entire planet to a dimension where they can live in bodily form for eternity.

Meanwhile, Joshua is a captain of his own starship and proudly gallivanting about the Confederation looking for trade and tail, both of which he succeeds in snaring. His largest pull comes from collecting the hardest wood known to the Confederation, a special wood from Lalonde, and selling it to the pastoral planet named Norfolk. Norfolk is a planet constitutionally limiting their technology, so Joshua's gamble of transporting a starship full of wood (ridiculous to many) pays off big time, earning him prime access to two things: a shipload of the Confederation's finest alcohol called Norfolk Tears (made from a dying flower's sap) and the young, naïve yet buxom beauty of a wealthy estate, Louise Kavanagh.

When hell breaks loose on Lalonde, the trickle of information from the budding colony eventually reaches the Confederation. Rumors are thrown around on the ground of Lalonde as much as they are across the stars, but an early solid report of the chaos cuts a new facet on the rumors: an infamous rogue Edenist who destroyed an entire habitat is found on Lalonde. Has he anything to do with the demonic possessions? If so, why did he warn secret Confederation agents about the emerging human plight of possession? And if he's so innocent, why did he send an intense word of warning via affinity when he killed himself? One thing is for certain: "on old Earth they used to say all roads led to Rome. Here on Lalonde, all the rivers lead to Durringham" (985), but the rivers of water aren't the only streams headed towards Durringham; heavily armed starships are headed to the planet to confront the threat with precise orbital bombardment or, if the threat warrants its usage, strategic nuclear bombs.

The Confederation, though composed of billions of humans and two xenoc species, has never been under such a threat: souls invading living human bodies; to kill the body would send two souls (one sinister, one innocent) back to the bodiless dimension. This is the crux of the problem the Confederation faces; here, there must consider:

"Our empathy means never hide from what we feel ... the balance is the penalty of being human: the danger of allowing yourself to feel. For this we walk a narrow path high above rocky ground. On one side we have the descent into animalism, on the other a godhead delusion. Both pulling of us, both tempting. But without these forces tugging of your psyche, stirring it into conflict, you can never love." (118)

For a more thorough, accurate plot synopsis for The Reality Dysfunction, see Wikipedia.

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One of the basic premises which I glanced over in my own synopsis was the classic division of the human race into two sects: the Adamists (baseline humans) and the Edenists (genetically engineered with the telepathic affinity gene). The Edenists include not only gene-linked humans, but also their massive bitek habitats, their starships named voidhawks, and menial laborers of animal origin. The basis for Edenism comes from the affinity gene, which as mentioned above, links all Edenists together more harmoniously than the baseline Adamists: "with their communal affinity there was no hiding emotions or truth" (24).

I've always been skeptical about the reality of telepathy, treating it as a pseudo-science or calling it outright bunk. I find it difficult to swallow the pill Hamilton gives us: telepathy by genetics... not only that, but a telepathy which is impossible to intercept (926). Not completely outside the boundaries of physics, affinity is limited by distance. Certainly, if distance is a limitation, there some sort of signal must travel through some sort of medium--this is the essence of a transmission. I'm baffled by why it's impossible to intercept its transmissions, as if human genes--little protein messengers--carry a mechanism which defeats the laws of the known universe.

Equally as hard to swallow is the other overarching premise: human souls exist (and are undetectable just like affinity) and reside outside of our normal space-time sphere, all in pain and all lusting for corporeal existence. Whether this is addressed in the remaining two books is unknown (now 75% of the way through The Neutronium Alchemist and something's been hinted, but nothing solid). I don't understand the ill intentions and evil motives of the returning dead; sure, some of them had been influenced by Quinn sadism and his lust for power and pain from the Light Bringer, but it seems like our kind human nature is vanquished once we return from the dead. However, this is not a certainty in 100% of the cases, as toward the end of The Reality Dysfunction was come across a noble spirit who assists in a rescue of children from the clutches the returning dead. Further, The Neutronium Alchemist (in at about the 75% point), sympathetic factions of the possessed arise.

One last piece of the plot annoyed me. While the Edenists' voidhawks and the Adamists' blackhawks can traverse space through wormholes, subjectively traveling faster than light, messages are unable to travel in a similar superluminal fashion. Crystal flecks (the standard unit of data exchange) are thereby loaded with information and send in a voidhawk or blackhawk, send across the gulf of stars to a far-off star system where they broadcast the message. For important news to travel around the entire system of the Confederation, great manpower and shiptime must be dedicated to the effort... which, conveniently, plays a part into the spread of the possessed.

Now come the uni-faceted characters: the protagonists of skirt-chasing Joshua and his skirt with a brain Ione; then the antagonist of hellbent Quinn. Aside from these prevalent characters, there's actually a number of more interesting people who form Joshua's entourage and some other crew members of other gallivanting ships which were left out of the already lengthy synopsis (again, see Wikipedia for that). For example, Father Horst Elwes emigrates to Lalonde because of his weak faith and when his faith is tested by the seeming resurrection of the dead, his kind god-fearing side comes to the surface. Lastly, Erick Thakrar (a Confederation Navy spy) and Captain André Duchamp (occasional smuggler) provide a great frisson which develops well into The Neutronium Alchemist.

Enough about the plot of this expansive space opera. Now, a word about consistency when using the English language; I'm sensitive to this kind of thing. For example, if you use the word "color" on one page then spell it "colour" on a different page, I'm going to notice... or if you "touchy" instead of "tetchy" then later swap their uses, I'm going to point it out. For Peter F. Hamilton, the one major inconsistency, which probably won't mar your reading of the book if it hadn't already been pointed out, is his use of the hyphen, which in this case is used to join words as compound nouns or adjectives (e.g. sun-dried tomatoes or sundried tomatoes, but not both). Consider:
a) "olive-green one-piece anti-projectile suit" (580) and "olive green one piece anti-projectile suits"(613)
b) "space-plane" (1091, line 4) and "spaceplane" (1091, line 6)
c) "thermodump panels" (9 and 108) while "thermo-dump" was more widely used
d) sometimes "combat wasp" is hyphenated, sometimes not as "combat-wasp".

Even less obvious and easier to miss are some typeface issues or proofreading issue with the lowercase letter-L, the capital letter-L and the lowercase letter-I; for example:
a) "Ione" instead of "lone" (973, line 4)
b) "vold" instead of "void" (1031, line 11)

Lastly, the fine-toothed comb found one additional inconsistency: the full stop with the abbreviation of mister. Consider: "Mr Wallace" (1040, line 31) and "Mr. Malin" (1040, line 33) with a number of other examples on the proceeding three pages.

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It's modern space opera; you should know what to expect: lots of transient characters, interweaving plot lines, untold pages going by without hearing from a character or two, loads of proper nouns (planets, ships, cities, etc.), and hints of things to come in a thousand pages or so within the sequel : The Neutronium Alchemist. In these regards, the beginning to the Night's Dawn trilogy does not disappoint, but I just find it hard to enjoy a plot which heavily relies on gene-linked, physics-defying telepathy and the irrational returning souls of the dead. Having bought all three volumes of the trilogy already (with the inclusion of the third volume, The Naked God), I'm dedicated to finishing this popular trilogy.


Rollback
Rollback
Price: £2.54

2.0 out of 5 stars A cheese platter of pop culture and author indulgence, 10 Feb 2014
This review is from: Rollback (Kindle Edition)
In 2009, I read my first Robert J. Sawyer novel—Calculating God (2000)—which I enjoyed for its plethora of science yet panned for its stereotypes and a laundry list of annoyances: “near-millennial pop-culture references, science fiction trivia, extensive homage paid to the late Carl Sagan and facts surrounding the real Royal Ontario Museum”. Little did I know, Rollback would gather these same elements around an entirely different plot; yet, regardless of the who, what, when, where and why of the plot, the entire novel feels like a paint by numbers novel—a pushover, an easy read.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Dr. Sarah Halifax decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens thirty-eight years ago. Now, a second message is received, and Sarah, not eighty-seven, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too… if she lives long enough.

A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback—a hugely expensive rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on the condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.

While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between him and his wife, Sarah heroically struggles to figure out what a signal from the stars contains before she dies.”

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It has long been thought that the first message from an alien race would be the passing of information vital to bootstrap the human race into technological perfection, to provide all of humankind’s questions with a simple yet benevolent heaven-sent answer. However, the first message was anything but.

March 1st, 2009: Earth’s first reception of an alien message via SETI. The enormous packet of data sent from Sigma Draconis II is encoded by a decimal number system, which is gradually decoded by numerous experts around the work. The first part of the message establishes a common grammar for the second part of the message which defeats the world’s greatest minds… until Sarah Halifax stumbles upon the answer to the deciphering while playing Scrabble with her husband; the feat wins her brief worldwide fame. More importantly, the resulting information is discovered to be a survey of eighty-four question regarding morals and ethics:

"A series of questions, most of which are multiple choice, laid out like a three-dimensional spreadsheet, with space for a thousand different people to provide their answers to each question. The aliens clearly want a cross section of our views, and they went to great pains to establish a vocabulary for conveying value judgments and dealing with matters of opinion, with sliding scales for precisely quantifying responses." (100)

Of the 1,206,343 anonymous responses to the questionnaire via internet, 999 are randomly selected to be sent back to the alien source with the inclusion of one additional response: that of Dr. Sarah Halifax. The 18.8 light-year distance to Sigma Draconis II means that humanity will not receive a return signal for at least another 37 years. Meanwhile, the humans go about their terrestrial lives doing terrestrial things such as playing Scrabble, watching Seinfeld and buying DVDs of old Canadian TV series.

February 2nd, 2048: Earth’s second reception of a signal from Sigma Draconis II. Sarah Halifax, celebrating her sixtieth wedding anniversary at the ripe age of eighty-seven, is called on to decipher the message yet again. The bulk of the message is unreadable yet is confirmed to have been sent by the same aliens which sent the initial message as they used a unique identifier, a fact kept secret from everyone on Earth. Cody McGavin, the superbly wealthy business owner and financer of SETI, calls upon Sarah because he believes that the enormous distance of signaling between civilizations is not a conversation between the same civilizations, but between individuals: the one alien and the one human transceivers. To facilitate this belief, opposing Sagan’s rhetorical question “Who speaks for the Earth?” (144), McGavin offers the most sacred of gifts to Sarah: near immortality.

The gift of near immortality comes in the form or a “rollback” procedure, from the Rejuvenex company, which starts “with a full-body scan, cataloging problems that would have to be corrected: damaged joints, partially clogged arteries, and more” (58) and entails a repair to their DNA, with “trillions of somatic cells” being repaired while “lengthening the telomeres” (59). The procedure costs billions of dollars and only a few wealthy people could afford the process of restoring their body clock to the age of twenty-five or so.

With the passing of their recent sixtieth anniversary, Sarah and Don look forward to spending another sixth years of marriage together. With the procedure complete, Sarah and Don notice no immediate effects but the checkups performed by Rejuvenex’s doctors reveal that, while Don’s rollback is progressing nicely, Sarah’s own rollback hasn’t started, leaving her at the physically frail age of an octogenarian yet her mind is still sharp as a tack.

Without the buzzing susurrus of his body’s aging pains, Don’s rejuvenation unveils the cobwebbed senses of youth: vim and vigor, hope and ambition, and, most notably, the stirring juices of sexual attraction—the feeling of being attractive and attracted. Unable to squelch his new-found stallion lust with his fragile wife, Don finds ample opportunity at the university where Sarah used to work. His errand of fetching her “contact” papers allows him to contact a particularly pulchritudinous redheaded graduate student who lures him into her bed… without a sign of physical struggle or mental anguish.

Ignorant of his trysts yet slowly realizing the ramifications of his rejuvenation, doddering Sarah eventually falls and can’t get up because philandering Don isn’t there to assist her. She asks filthy rich Cody McGavin, of McGavin Robotics, for a robot assistant to help her at home while Don is dipping his wick elsewhere. Able to cook, serve, chauffer and ambulate Sarah, the robot, which they name Gunter, becomes an essential part of their family. They invest their trust in the machine which is concerned for their well-being and is always hovering around Sarah to facilitate her every whim and aid in her memory.

Meanwhile, Sarah toils at home trying to decipher the recent signal from Sigma Draconis II. Across the world, those with original copies of the transmission are correlating that data with the recent set and even amateurs are taking futile stabs at cracking the code. She thinks, perhaps, that one set of answers from the original questionnaire may unlock the transmission, but the eighty-four sets are unable to unscramble the code; attempting to unlock it with all possible variations of answers from the questionnaire would result in 2 × 10^39 unique answer sets, which is even beyond the capability of supercomputers in the year 2048.

Increasingly physically feeble, Sarah expends her last joules of might to decipher the code, alone in her strife at home and together with symposiums online. Revitalized with youthful vigor, Don is also gifted with age-old wisdom thereby questioning his own impetuous actions; his love for Scrabble and women one-third of his age is eclipsed by his lifelong dedication to his dear wife, Sarah.

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I have given thought about what the first, brief message from the stars would be:

Mars: “Mars needs women.”
Tau Centuri: “Hello?”
51 Pegasi: “Attachment not found.”
Vega: “Erectile dysfunction?”
Pollox: “LMAO.”
Capella: “We request The Beatles.”
Aldebaran: “This statement is false.”
Altair: “What was I gonna say?”

Popular held opinion, as mentioned in Rollback, is that aliens will bestow great knowledge to us because of their advanced capabilities and age-old benevolence, a belief once held by Carl Sagan: “Carl Sagan used to talk about us receiving an Encyclopaedia Galactica” (100). Instead of answers, the aliens of Sigma Draconis II send questions, questions of personal moral depth, all of which can be accomplished by the lengthy primer which stems from mathematics. It’s a bit beyond my mind or belief how you go from “[Question] 2+3 … [Answer] 5” (73) to “Is it acceptable to prevent pregnancy when the population is low?” or “Is it acceptable to terminate pregnancy when the population is high?” or “Is it all right for the state to execute bad people?” (101).

I can briefly suspend my belief (as a SF reader, this is rather precursory) for the message, but the reply to our answers is borderline absurd. The surprising content of the message may first be wow but the ramifications soon dissolve the initial excitement to turgid interest and finally to the novel’s epilogue with either flaccid disinterest or rigid revolt… the epilogue is pretty, pretty cheesy—barely able to stomach as a matter of opinion.

Referring to the “near-millennial pop-culture references, science fiction trivia, extensive homage paid to the late Carl Sagan and facts surrounding the real Royal Ontario Museum” mentioned in the introduction, let me outline these eccentricities and others exhibited by Sawyer in this novel, eccentricities which make the novel irksome, painful to read. All these whims coalesce into one broad category of indulgence:

(a) The book feels cheesy, hokey or emphatically sarcastically cute. Passing whims include: the chimes of Window’s OS opening theme, visiting outdated websites (Slashdot) on said computer, remembering television shows of Canada’s past, buying DVDs of said television series, recollecting a favorite Seinfeld episode, buying VHS and DVD movies, mentioning the difference between Contact the book (1985) and Contact the movie (1997), listening to an iPod, naming a robot from a memory of Lost in Space (1965-1968), remembering watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, playing The Sims game, mentioning a fictional glass artist who has the same name as the book’s dedication: Robyn Herrington, etc.

(b) Carl Sagan is mentioned seven times (pages 30, 55, 100, 103, 106, 144, 243), which is strange because he isn’t a character in the novel. He may be one of Sarah’s influences and one-time personal colleague, but why must he be so prevalent? I don’t know why Sawyer is so obsessed with Sagan; he may have been a great scientist and intellectual, but how does one find the gall to include the man in such a mediocre novel?

(c) The gall/cheese factor is ramped up when Don says, "One of my favorite authors once said, 'Virtual reality is nothing but air guitar writ large'", which is actually a quote from Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment (1995).

(d) Then there are a few hiccups which have no referential point and even after research, I can’t pin down the reference; for example: “Pauli's turned out to be a seafood restaurant, and even though Don loved John Masefield's poetry, he hated seafood. Ah, well; doubtless the menu would have some chicken or steak” (44). I thought maybe I had missed something or had Sawyer simply stuck this in the story to be cute… well, on a short Twitter exchange, Robert J. Sawyer, himself, said, “Masefield wrote ‘Sea Fever’, which didn’t put the matter to rest. It must be another one of those “cute/clever” eccentric additions of Sawyer’s which he thinks is pretty keen to include in his novel but really adds zero value to the story… perhaps, negative value.

Aside from the numerous eccentricities which distract the reader more than entertain the reader, the novel is a no-brainer: predictable twists and predictable characters. Including working full-time and two 8-hour periods of sleep, I finished this book in a matter of 47 hours… not because it was engrossing, captivating or intellectually stimulating, but because it read easily (more easily that A. A. Attanasio’s Radix [1981], rather). You could say, it read so easily that it was void of any engrossment, captivation or intellectual stimulation; “very readable” does not equate to “very good”.

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I guess if you want to read a quick book on a long flight and suffer indigestion from the book’s content rather than the plane’s food, this might be for you. Or, if you savor pop culture references and meaningless eccentricities, you might enjoy every other word of this novel. I’m sad I still have Sawyer’s The Hominids in my bookshelf… it might receive an early, thrusting boot from my collection if it anything like this cheese platter called Rollback.


The Abominable
The Abominable
by Dan Simmons
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Authentic and innately fearsome, yet monotonous, 4 Nov 2013
This review is from: The Abominable (Hardcover)
Read Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990) in 2008 during my second full years of reading science fiction--loved it. Read The Terror (2007) in 2010--loved it. Read Summer of Night (1991) later in 2012--thought is OK even though I'm from a small Illinois town myself. While not a flawless author, Simmons certainly infuses some of the most chilling scenes in his novels. The Terror remains one of my favorite novels about isolation, struggle, predation, and death. The most captivating thing about The Abominable is the similarity of the four themes: isolation, struggle, predation, and death.

Inside flap synopsis:
"It's 1924 and the race to summit the world's highest mountain has been brought to a terrified pause by the shocking disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine high on the shoulder of Mount Everest. By the following year, three climbers--a British poet and veteran of the Great War, a young French mountain guide, and an idealistic young American--find a way to take their shot at the top. They arrange funding from the grieving Lady Bromley, whose son also disappeared on Everest in 1924. Young Bromley must be dead, but his mother refuses to believe it and pays the trio to bring him home.

Deep in Tibet and high on Everest, the three climbers--joined by the missing boy's female cousin--find themselves being pursued through the night by someone, or something in a nightmare that becomes a matter of life and death at 28,000 feet. What is chasing them? And what is the truth behind the 1924 disappearances on Everest? As they fight their way to the top of the world, the friends uncover a secret far more abominable than any mythical creature could ever be."

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After the failed Everest attempts of 1922 and 1924 and the resulting tragic deaths of George Mallory and Andre Irvine, three Alpine climbers concoct a scheme to have their own attempt at the yet-to-scaled peak of the world. Also killed on the notorious Himalayan mountain was "thirty-two-year old Lord Percival Bromley, brother of the fifth Marquess of Lexter, and a German or Austrian climber ... identified as Kurt Meyer", both having died from "being swept away by an avalanche" (37). Due to his secret wealth and social stature, British Great War (WWI) veteran and renowned climber commonly known as "the Deacon" (Richard Davis Deacon) sets up a meeting with Percival's (Percy) grieving mother at her luxurious English countryside manor. Under the guise of recovering the body of young Percy (or returning his living form, as his mother insists), the trio of mountaineers secure enough funds to achieve their ill-thought-out dream--to scale Everest.

Near of the end of 1924, England is having continually frosty relations with war-stricken Germany and difficult relationships with the country of Tibet, too. Nepal has never been open to foreigners and the Indian province of Sikkim is sympathetic and antagonistic about the English debacle with Tibet. England is unlikely to have another official attempt at the peak in the near future as the only viable route passes through Sikkim. However, the plans that the trio have are for their "very unofficial and almost unreported Deacon-Clairoux-Perry Himalayan Expedition of 1925" (47). Their German climbing colleagues, a tense brotherhood infused with hate for each other's nationalism and respect for the profession, offer clues to the whereabouts of Percy. Their words are naturally distrusted, but Bruno Sigl were the only living eyes to see him from a distance--a black dot descending a slope. The atmosphere of mistrust is exasperated by the eerie hero worship of Herr Hitler in the Munich beer hall Bürgerbräukeller.

Relatively ignoring the German advice but adopting the German climbing techniques, the trio of mountaineers make way for India. To facilitate the tetchy tyrant in Sikkim and monitor the funds of the expedition, Lady Bromley insists on attaching Percy's cousin, Reggie, to the trip; however, this cousin must be met at the Bromley family's tea plantation in Darjeeling, India. Free money rarely comes unattached with agendas or prerogatives. Cousin Reggie, as it turns out, is a beautiful woman with serious experience in mountain climbing, including an admirable effort in scaling Everest itself. With her expertise, she gathers sherpas and equipment, where the three-man team suddenly blooms to a five-man crowd surrounded by porters. Miffed to say the least, the Deacon eventually accepts the situation because without Reggie, this expedition to 29,000 feet would never have left the docks on sea level.

Along with the Deacon are two fellow climbers trained in the art of Alpine ascent: (a) Jacob Perry, a young Harvard university graduate who has climbed in Alaska, the Rockies, and especially the Alps where he is exceedingly skilled at traversing rock faces which have a high degree of difficulty; (b) Jean-Claude (nicknamed J.C.) Clairoux is an inventive climber who is becoming intrigued by the inventiveness of German climbers using rigid steel equipment for pinions and crampons. As the Deacon has ascended Everest with the now deceased Mallory on two separate occasions, he is well aware of the dangers from its base of 17,000 feet up to its treacherous First and Second Steps at 28,000 feet.

More mysterious than the icy secrets and hidden dangers of Everest are the motives of Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer. They weren't part of the official 1924 expedition and interviewers have said that they trailed behind seemingly traveling alone without any support. Could he be living up to his reputation as a "wastrel, a disappointment to his family, a discredit to his country during the War ... a debauched playboy ... a deviant" (479) or could he be tracking the mythical yeti, a "one of the many demons who the locals [of the Himalayas] believe live in or on the mountain ... a real, living, breathing, blood-eating man-thing" (160). To Perry and J.C., the actual motives of young Percy are beyond their grasp of reality when both the Deacon and Reggie fill them in on the truth.

Elated to have the opportunity to climb the famous yet infamous mountain, Perry may be young and eager, but he is also professionally hesitant: "I'm not afraid of trying to climb Mount Everest, but I'm almost frightened to be in the presence of those men who've become world famous by attempting and failing to do so" (91). This fear of tarnished legacy strikes him quickly as he's one of the first to suffer altitude sickness (or "mountain lassitude"), a result of his prior illness when passing through the steamy jungles of Sikkim. His rasping cough progresses from the sensation of a chicken bone being caught, to steel burrs scraping, to razor blades slicing down his throat. Meanwhile, the five mountaineers (the Deacon, Perry, J.C., Reggie, and her doctor-friend Pasang ascend the mountain, establish camps I, II, III, IV, V, and VI but they also must descend to acclimatize and carry good from camp to camp.

This acclimatization only helps the climbers to a point, but the more time they spend around the Yellow Band of Everest (at 28,000 feet), the more brain cells they kill and the more sluggish they react--a combination with the cold which is fatal without companions or diligence. Still, all the common symptoms of "mountain lassitude" manifest themselves, obviously or unknowingly, in all members of the party:

[O]ur hearts were swollen, our muscles were failing, our kidneys, stomachs, and other internal organs were not doing their jobs properly, our blood was too thick and ready to spawn embolisms, our red blood cells were doing without the oxygen they needed, and our brains were oxygen starved ... We were metaphorical inches from hypothermia. (557)

Even with the sickness, the ache, and hardships, and the atmospheric torture, Perry still reflects, "But for that moment, we were very happy" (557). Including his accomplishments on Everest, Perry again reflects, even if he lived another seventy years "this would be the climbing effort I would be most proud of" (587). Situated at Camp V for the night, their atypical ascent of Everest is shattered not by the percussion of wind gusts, but by the solitary scream approaching their tent. Later, they would approach Base Camp and see dismembered torsos with their limbs scattered about, all surrounded by pools of blood. Who or what had committed this travesty upon the humble sherpas at Base Camp? Due to these circumstances and truths yet unveiled, the search for Percy's body now becomes a necessity rather than a detour.

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As much as my and the book's synopses both emphasize Perry's expedition on Everest, sadly, the reality of The Abominable is stifled by Simmons' obsession with climbing gear and types of terrain--the mountaineering lingo is absurdly unabashed, like the gratuitous three-page spew on pages 205-207. It's not that I'm ignorant, I just get sick of reading about hammers (31 times), traversing (45 times), crampons (75 times), ropes (86 times), and camps (102 times)... then there are the cwms (8 times), moraine rocks (24 times), crevasses (56 times), summits (132 times), and ridges (132 times) atop of the continual climbing on ice, rock, and snow. The monotony doesn't seem to affect Perry but it certainly begins to feel blasé after 500 pages. Thankfully, Simmons is equally as diligent with his plot as he is with his climbing--Perry's pain comes through the pages.

While the mystery of young Percy's disappearance on the mountain is metaphorically buried under an avalanche of mountaineering (pun intended to reinforce the annoying topic), there remains a niggling persistence of fear from the perilous mountain and the continual exposure to the sherpas' fear of the yeti. As they climb cliffs, you can sense the yeti looking down upon them; when they wind their through pinnacles, you can feel the yeti around every corner; when they scale a chimney, you can see death rain from above. For the first 444 pages (including Parts I [The Climbers] & II [The Mountain]), the fear is nebulous, but with the onset of Part III (The Abominable) the fear penetrates, becomes subdermal. Finally, the fear strikes the blood, racing to the heart shortly into Part III.

As monotonous as the scenery is and as persistence as the climbing lingo is, all of this pales in comparison to one huge speed bump early on in the book where Simmons allows himself to digress from mountaineering in order to describe the "9,000-acre estate beyond Stamford" (59) simply called the Bromley House. This lengthy and utterly irrelevant dalliance of Simmons' extends for eleven pages. It reads like Simmons did his homework on some wondrous manor in England and just simply had to include everything into the book which he did research on. I've done a master's thesis, I know the pain of doing peripheral research for a few weeks only, in the end, to leave the data unused. Allow yourself to digress from the central focus and you might as well append the dictionary, the Bible, and an issue of Playboy to the appendix.

Further qualms with Simmons' writing lays with two repetitive phrases, one issued from the speakers and one issued from Simmons' own writing style. The first is the repetition of the non-native speakers asking, "How do you say?" or "What's the word?"--gaps in the conversation which feel jerky. In reality, this happens quite often but I very much doubt that the narrator, Perry, would remember such petty details when writing about his Himalayan expedition. These would have been better left deleted. The last annoyance is one I can't quite get over and which I can't quite describe my hatred for it, but I hate the adverbial phrase "all but"... which he used about 24 times.

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The Abominable wasn't as good or as trialing as The Terror, but it still provided a creepy haunting, an innate fear of shadows and myth. When this finally manifested, it lacked punch; the fear dissolved into irksomeness. I'm glad Simmons had the chance to follow his mountaineering fancy and indulge himself in the terminology associated with his passion; while this makes the narrative authentic, it doesn't make the story very engaging to the reader. There were just too many dalliances by Simmons' own whim to make it a focused, engaging read while, at the same time, being creepy and terror-striking--as a reader, I felt disassociated.


Last And First Men (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
Last And First Men (S.F. MASTERWORKS)
by Olaf Stapledon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Superlative: prophetic, expansive, and ingenious, 28 Oct 2013
I tend to avoid early twentieth century science fiction because of the vapid plots, hollow characters, and abject cheesiness of the material. Case in point: E.E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928)--hated it. When I hear about a recommended book from the same era, I tend to file that suggestion in the trash bin. However, when I read Brian Aldiss' Farewell, Fantastic Venus (1968) anthology, I was floored by the imagination of one particular story, an excerpt from Last and First Name. I had known the name of the author, Olaf Stapledon, but never thought it sounded good--vapid, hollow, and cheesy are the words that instantly sprang to mind. Reading the excerpt smashed that ignorant assumption of mine.

Thankfully, I was in the right time at the right place when I found a brand-new edition of this book for a mere ninety-six baht (US$3.10). I snapped it up and filed it away on my overloaded bookshelf to one day be read. As a long holiday neared (October 20-23), I opened the book during my commute, then during my lunches, then in the evening in bed, then on the bus to my destination. I was hooked.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Evolution is an astonishing thing.

Over the next billion years human civilisations will rise and fall like waves on the shore, each one rising from savagery to an ever-advancing technological peak before falling back and being surpassed.

This extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novel is full of pioneering speculations about the nature of evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and the savage, progressive nature of man."

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Brian Aldiss has called this book "great classical ontological epic prose poems" (vi) and inspired the minds of great men; among them: Arthur C. Clark, Freeman Dyson, and Winston Churchill. I'll respect Aldiss' advice! My Gollancz edition (UK, 2009) has a forward by Gregory Benford (v-vii), an author who I have little interest in after the disastrous reads of In the Ocean of Night (1977) and Timescape (1980). His 3-page forward, while moderately insightful, offers the following advice:

"[S]imply skip the first four parts and begin with The Fall of the First Man [Chapter V]. This eliminates the antique quality of the book and also tempers the rather repetitive cycle of rise and fall that becomes rather monotonous." (vii)

Audacious! This is terrible advice, which confirms my already dislike for Benford. Considering its publication in 1930, the first four chapter of Last and First Men are an amazingly prophetic portrait of the world after World War II with the continuation of the Americanized world into the twenty-first century and America's bipolar relationship with China. Consider these prophetic words:

"In the Far West, the United States of America openly claimed to be custodians of the whole planet. Universally feared and envied, universally respected for their enterprise, yet for their complacency very widely despised, the Americans were rapidly changing the whole character of man's existence. By this time every human being throughout the planet made use of American products ... the American press, gramophone, radio, cinematograph and televisor ceaselessly drenched the planet with American thought ... What wonder, then, that America, even while she was despised, irresistibly moulded the whole human race. This, perhaps, would not have mattered, had America been able to give of her very rare best. But inevitably only her worst could be propagated. Only the most vulgar traits of that potentially great people could get through into the minds of foreigners by means of these crude instruments. And so, by the floods of poison issuing from this people's baser members, the whole world, and with it the nobler parts of America herself, were irrevocably corrupted." (21-22)

Those are true words for this American expat, who renounces most of American television, political rhetoric, slovenly dietary habits, and the obsession with consumerism. Olaf Stapleton in his preface (ix-xii) to Last and First Men says, "American readers ... may feel that their great nation is given a somewhat unattractive part in the story. I have imagined the triumph of a cruder sort of Americanism ... May this not occur in the real world!" (xi). Sorry Olaf, your worst fears materializes much sooner than you prophesized! Further, "Some readers, taking my story to be an attempt at prophecy, may deem it unwarrantably pessimistic. But it is nor prophecy; it is myth, or an essay in myth" (xi). Sadly, what started as an exercise in moldable myth became a monopole of reality.

The first four chapters aren't as weighty as Benford suggests; they are rich with insight and chock full of ominous signs for the next few hundred, thousand, million and billion years of human evolution.

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Chapter I: Balkan Europe
Compounded pride and ignorance, ever the silent pusher in human affairs, claim the lives of many in the Anglo-French War. Thereafter, nationalism is seen as a swarthy agent of a nation's demise, yet, when fingers are pointed they point both ways. With global interests of economy, America plays a tepid role in affairs, unacting themselves yet always nosy in the mind's eye of the population; thus, the poisoning of the Russo-German war.

Chapter II: Europe's Downfall
After Europe's bickering divided the continent, America fills the vacuum of power. Globalizing the world with American products, America is "respected for their enterprise" yet "universally feared and envied" (21). Suspicious of competition and resistance, America makes its military pressure known with airbases and flyovers, one of which happens at the wrong time at the wrong place; thus, leading to a European megadeath and global fear of simply criticizing the powerful nation.

Chapter III: America and China
Though as Americanized as the rest of the world in regards to media, language, and habit, China arises to become America's chief global counterbalance of influence. Cultural differences divide the populous nations of China and India, yet America allies itself with Russian mysticism and China allies itself with the rigorous Germans. With the globe divided by the influence of the two nations, conflict can be sparked form noble beginnings and be fueled by patriotism.

Chapter IV: An Americanized Planet
Nearly four hundred years after the European War (Chapter I), a World State and its President of the World are established. Science, empirical thought held in such high regard it borders on mysticism, impregnates the daily life of each citizen who all revere the mysterious greatness of the ancient Chinese scientist Gordelpus, the Prime Mover. However, having expended Earth's sources of oil, they are left to rely on Antarctica's veins of coal.

Chapter V: The Fall of the First Men
With the utter eclipse of the World State and, with it, the knowledge and pride, so too befalls the glory of Man in progress. The Dark Ages settle in for many millennia yet geological processes continue unabated, without care for Man or his progress. From the fragments of Man rise a fledging civilization in the landmass of the once South Atlantic who rediscover their ancestor's greatness and, with it, its power for destruction and cruelty.

Chapter VI: Transition
Only twenty-eight hearty, intelligent souls survived the megadeath of the epic subterranean blast and found purchase on an inhabitable tract of land in northern Siberia. A schism physically divides the settlement--one half of the survivors staying on the coats and the other half crossing the seas... only to slowing devolve to barbarianism. Even the cultured and learned settlement found itself helpless to their natural state of inbred infertility and inflexibility.

Chapter VII: The Rise of the Second Men
From the dregs of the First man's ultimate Dark Age arose a passive species of its very descent. Meanwhile, across the great continental divide of mountains, a lesser form of man had devolved among simians which developed superior intellectual capacity; yet, these capacities were limited when compared to the great Siberian intellect. Jealousy leaves a rift and the demise of both races, regardless of a zenith for sexual revival, soon approached.

Chapter VIII: The Martians
Near a village in the Alpine peaks, a green cloud-cum-jelly descended from the sky to temporarily terrorize the curious and unfortunate. The cloud, actually a supermind of ultra-microscopic Martian entities, soon depart for unknown reasons, but the alien mind of the Martian individual and group psyche are as irrational as the minds of men. While advanced and industrious, the Martians are also flawed by a type of monomania.

Chapter IX: Earth and Mars
Millennia pass as recurrent intrusions by the Martians, each time being defeated by the crafty Second Men, but each time diminishing Man's will to fight. Eventually, complete colonization of the Earth is accomplished by the Martians and further study of the humans reveals their intellectual capacity. Self-confidence is found in Man who then defeat the Martians, but not before lassitude, lingering Martian saboteurs, and starvation change Man's nature.

Chapter X: The Third Men in the Wilderness
Freed from the yolk of Martian overrule and ushered into diversity from a glacial period, the Third Men evolved to become of special aural talent. Keen hunters yet also keen manipulators, the Third Men found a particular pleasure in the godliness of pain and considered its affliction upon lesser beings high excellent as it brought about "vivid psychic reality" (166). Fond of music, objective versus subjective harmony resulted in a chasm of displeasure.

Chapter XI: Man Remakes Himself
Savvy of manipulating germ cells and with a maniacal drive to create the most supreme mind, the Third Men are able to create a superior mind with a vestigial body then, simply, a massive mind capable to incredible intellectual feats... and only that. The Great Minds then produces further Great Minds, thus producing the Fourth Men. Exterminating the pests and peasants of the Third Men, the Great Minds create their own version of human perfection, mobile yet brilliant--the artificial Fifth Men.

Chapter XII: The Last Terrestrials
Telapathically linked as a whole, death much distressed the Fifth Men, whose lifespans reached upwards of 50,000 years. they yearned for the truth of an afterlife and found that the past was still tangible, thus began their obsession with remotely viewing the past. Never deceived, the Fifth Men also had to look forward to the terraforming of Venus because Earth's destiny was to be sealed by its fateful dance with its orbiting moon.

Chapter XIII: Humanity on Venus
With the native Venerians destroyed, the Fifth Men were slowly able to evolve, with much hardship, into the Sixth Men, a species which highly valued the beauty of flight. Their unremarkable, depressing existence gave way to the most splendid , rapturous species of Flying Men--the Seventh Men. Through gaiety and bliss, their short lives focused little on the sciences, so they bore the Eighth men--sturdy, intelligent, diligent, and unexpectedly unprepared to settle the planet Neptune.

Chapter XIV: Neptune
Ill-equipped for the barren wastelands of northern Neptune, the Ninth Men quickly suffered and devolved for millions of years, only occasionally arising to a brief flicker of intelligence. So went the proceeding Men, failures of their own success, until the Fifteenth Men, who "set themselves to abolish five great evils, namely, diseases, suffocating toil, senility, misunderstanding, ill-will" (251). Aware of their flaws, they created the Sixteenth Men, who devised the Seventeenth Men...

Chapter XV: The Last Men
The Eighteenth Men are the best adapted, longest living, and most conscious of the past, present, and future, yet they also know that they are to be the Last Men. They have lived the reality of a billion years of trial and error toward "harmonious complexity of form" and "the awakening of the spirit into unity, knowledge, delight and self-expression" (275). Life their evolution, the cosmos is very beautiful yet also very terrible and tragic.

Chapter XVI: The Last of Man
Inevitable cosmic disaster bestows the Eighteenth Men with a great task: continue the two billion-year music of Man's evolution or return the entire effort to stellar dust. Though slipping into anarchy and tribalism, the Men strive to produce intergalactic spore of Man which may seed a planet and continue mankind's tragic history, though the possibly remains remote. The certain blaze of oncoming death, however, spurs a final brotherly effort to reconcile.

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Consider the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh: "Civilisations have been destroyed many times, and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different." This modern Buddhist philosopher's words echo what Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher from decades earlier. By Chapter XIV, Stapledon begins to wax lyrically about the petty existence of Mankind in terms of the lifespan of the cosmos: "[T]he whole duration of humanity ... is but a flash in the lifetime of the cosmos" (244), and yet, even at the crescendo of consciousness which bestow the wise Men of the Last Men, Man still lies prone to all disasters which maybe come, be they cosmic or man-made:

"At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly." (281)

Doris Lessing, in her afterword (295-297), cites four authors who admired Olaf Stapledon's work: Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, and Theodore Sturgeon. This impressive list of admirers is flattery enough, but, as Charles Caleb Colton had said, imitation is sincerest form of flattery. Three books epitomize this flattery:

(1) Aldiss's own flattery in the form of imitation comes from his collection Starswarm (1964) where Man has settled 10,000 new worlds over one million years. These myriad "descendants of the inhabitants of Old Earth" (Signet, 1964) exhibit radical changes in society, in culture, and in physical form.

(2) Jack L. Chalker, best know his endless series of quests, wrote a quadrilogy entitled The Rings of the Master, which starts with Lords of the Middle Dark (1986). The proceeding three books explore Mankind which had been deliberately dispersed by Earth's Master system and the cast's attempt to retrieve the necessary rings to disable the System. Each world is home to an exotic form of Mankind, forcibly evolved to adapt to the planet's climate.

(3) John Brunner's A Maze of Stars (1991) is an amazing stereoscopic view of mankind's evolving and devolving amid "the six hundred planets" which "had been seeded with human stock by the greatest feat of technology ever achieved" by The Ship. The Ship's duty is to visit, time and again, each of the worlds it had seeded, for better or worse.

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Regardless of its 83-year age, this book has stood the test of time, rendering it a testament to imagination to a magnificent scale, foresight on an epic scale, and intuitiveness of a grand scale. The decades haven't been as kind to some science fiction books as is has been to Last and First Men--Asimov's Foundation (1951) has a terribly dated feeling and Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) now feels limp and lackluster.

Disregard Gregory Benford's simple-minded advice of ignoring the first four chapters of Last and First Men (a sixth of the entire book) because Stapledon's ingenuity starts even before the first chapter, it starts in his preface; disregard people who dislike a book without a protagonist or central character because Mankind's potential is the highlight here, and disregard my own opinion... this needs to be read.


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