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Diziet "I Like Toast" (Netherlands)

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New Model Army
New Model Army
by Adam Roberts
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prescient, 23 Oct. 2010
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This review is from: New Model Army (Hardcover)
This is the first Adam Roberts book I have read. And I have to say that I don't understand how I could have missed such a wonderful author for so long.

I notice that when a sci-fi book is particularly successful, it is no longer referred to as sci-fi but often as the rather more upmarket 'speculative fiction'. Well, it doesn't really matter, but it falls into a fairly well-developed branch of sci-fi, along with books such as Ken MacLeod's 'The Star Fraction', possibly Neal Stephenson's 'Zodiac' - politically motivated, near-future, high-tech and web-enabled.

Politically, the book harks back to Roberts' first novel 'Salt', with a strictly non-hierarchical anarchistic 'People's Army' running rings around the conventional forces. It is set in a similar future period and geography as Ken MacLeod's 'The Star Fraction', and the supporting tech is clearly one possible extrapolation of the World Wide Web, smart phones, peer-to-peer networking. Whether it is a truly realistic extrapolation and whether this libertarian army could actually function feels less important than the air of optimism, of hope in an alternative future that the novel somehow brings. Again, for me, a very similar experience to 'The Star Fraction'.

However, it is darker and far more realistically human than Ken MacLeod's first novel. I found the central character wholly believable, wholly sympathetic, someone I ended up really caring about. To be able to couple this real empathy for a character with the high-tech politics of the novel brought the latter into sharp relief, humanising the possibilities in a quite extraordinary way. Although 'Pantegral' (the name of the 'New Model Army') seems at times like some huge soulless beast, the name 'pan' (all) and 'integral' (essential for completeness) suggests that all the individuals are equally important for the functioning of this beast - unlike the hierarchical and so fragile conventional army that it faces.

I really didn't want this book to end. Rarely have I been so caught up with and cared about the characters in a novel. The fact that I also found the politics and technology hugely attractive just, for me, completed one of the most satisfying books I've read in a very long while.

by Adam Roberts
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars On or Off, 23 Oct. 2010
This review is from: On (GOLLANCZ S.F.) (Hardcover)
What a very strange book. It is based around a single, huge concept that results in a world that is almost unrecognisably alien. But within this alien world, people live small agrarian lives, superstitious, narrow and ignorant. And then one boy, Tighe, goes unwillingly and unknowingly on a quest. And that is kind of the trouble with the book. Quests, to my mind, don't always make for the most riveting of stories. The central concept is so huge that the narrative ends up being almost swallowed by it. The story tends towards the 'this happened and next, this happened and after that, this happened', so there's not really any 'plot'.

In some ways, it rather reminded me of 'Davy' by Edgar Pangborn. In that book, the eponymous hero travels through a post-apocalyptic America, ruled by the Holy Murcan Church. But in Adam Roberts world, things are more tribal, as the Empire declares war on the 'Otre' and Tighe is caught up in the ensuing chaos. The story seems allegorical, almost like 'Gulliver's Travels', but if it is, the allegory is pretty obscure. It feels as though there should be some ulterior motive or power. It is, at times, reminiscent of 'Candy Man' - another post-apocalyptic but dream-like novel. There's also something very English about the book - probably the nearest comparison I can think of is Brian Aldiss's 'Hothouse'.

Although it is very well written, at times in an almost poetic or epic style, I found it long and quite hard work at times and it is strange to compare this with, say, the more overtly political sci-fi of 'Salt' or the fantastical 'Stone'. Certainly Adam Roberts always provides a challenging read.

Adam Roberts states right at the end that the novel is about 'precariousness'. There is an obvious sense in which this is the case, but also the story is in a sense equally precarious and, as such, not wholly successful. Still, Adam Roberts is always worth reading.

by Adam Roberts
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Lost ideals, 23 Oct. 2010
This review is from: Salt (Paperback)
Adam Roberts' first book is remarkable. After thirty-seven years of travelling through space, the colonists arrive on a less than friendly planet. But really, that's pretty much by-the-by. What is important in this book are the ideas and the way the ideas form and affect the relationships between the people, the developments in their societies and the way the societies' interact. As such, it is deeply political and clearly prefigures themes that Roberts returns to, in a slightly different form, in his excellent 'New Model Army'.

We have two distinct social forms, along with a few less clearly delineated types that fit within a spectrum between the two extremes. One is essentially anarchist, socially libertarian, the other severely hierarchical with a 'laissez-faire' economic model. As such, the book inevitably brings to mind Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed'. The two societies set off in separate space ships within a convoy and have little direct contact with each other during the journey to the planet 'Salt'. Once there, they set up geographically separate colonies but their different philosophies - one content to live within, adapt, and adapt to, the environment as necessary, the other aggressively expansionist - bring them into inevitable conflict. And there's the tragedy of the story. Not just a tragedy of lives lost through unnecessary conflict but a tragedy of ideas corrupted and lost as well.

It is a very powerful and very sad book. Not only are the ideas relevant and apposite, but I found myself getting really involved with the characters, hoping for a little respite from the bleak themes of corrupted ideals, ideology over empathy. At the same time, it is a fascinating read - especially in the light of Roberts' later work, in particular, as already stated, his 'New Model Army'.

Price: £11.45

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cuddly Robots, 14 Oct. 2010
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This review is from: DUST (Audio CD)
What a nice surprise. Took me a while to get into it, but it's worth the effort.

It's a really odd mixture of acoustic, conventionally electric and synthesised instruments. And it's an odd collection of rhythms too. The beats are metronomic, bringing to mind NEU! but they vary from the strict 4/4. In fact. one track is, I think, a tango. So it's also dance music. In fact, it's disco dance music - in 'Flashy, Flashy', first a deep male voice and then our heroine proclaims, 'Flashy, flashy, flashy, disco lights', sounding almost like a tongue-in-cheek 'Last Night a DJ Saved My Life'.

There's not much in the way of 'tunes' here - you can't really go away humming them. But they are hypnotic, laid-back and, in a steely sort of way, quite trippy. The cool, machine-like precision might be heard on 'My Tree', which is almost Kraftwerkian. But then 'Sun and Rain' has a simple guitar riff, with treated vocals, making it quite mellifluous and gentle. 'Should We Go Home' starts out droning but with organic jungle sounds fading in, before a straight 2/4 beat takes over, pausing for a quirky synth riff before the jungle sounds merge back in with the beat. It's gently dreamy and a nice contrast to the surrounding tracks.

'Ever' is electro-mechanical, but with a lovely Escher-like marimba-sounding keyboard riff. Or maybe steel drum. It doesn't really go anywhere, but you're glad you took the trip anyway.

'You' is back to the mock-disco vocals and beat. 'I close my eyes, I hear the sounds of the night'. The heavy guitar beat is sort of reminiscent of Velvet Underground, but the riff is broken up by a 'cute' single vocal chorus.

'Dream' is almost pure electronica - Aphex Twin-style synth drum rhythms over a bubbling but very simple keyboard riff.

'Huibuh' has the Latin rhythms. It's lovely. Whispered vocals, and a gorgeous sort of Fender Rhodes keyboard sound. It's kind of a sleazy night-club, early hours of the morning sound. I love it - it's both a nice contrast to the before and after tracks but also a perfect little variation on the straight 4/4.

And the final track is pretty much back to the electronica. Again, a straight-forward beat, bass, rhythms but atonal chords, rising riffs that don't really go anywhere. Electro-mechanical fading to tom-tom and - end.

So, all in all, a very laid-back album, quite tongue-in-cheek, with a kind of Laurie Anderson humour perhaps, but nods to other 'elektronische musik' - and yet another back-catalogue I'm going to have to investigate. :-)

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu
Edition: Hardcover

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time Waits for No One, 13 Oct. 2010
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Charles Yu, the hero of this story, is a Recreational Time Travel Device repairman. When people break down while travelling in their Recreational Time Travelling Devices, he goes and gets them back on the 'road'.

Too often, the reason people's recreational time travelling devices break down, though, is because they've been tinkering with them - trying to force the machines to go back to some point in their lives so they can try again, to make it better, to say sorry, to have another chance. They never can, though:

'People rent time machines. They think they can change the past. Then they get there and find out that causality doesn't work the way they thought it did. They get stuck, stuck in places they didn't mean to go, in places they did mean to go, in places they shouldn't have tried to go. They get into trouble. Logical, metaphysical etc. That's where I come in. I go in and get them out.' (p17)

His is a sad life. He has been away, idling his machine in 'Present-Indefinite' for ten years now. When he finally goes back to his tiny, one-room apartment, it seems he's only been away a day. In fact, a month's rent will probably cover his whole life.

The science the time travelling is based on is 'chronodiegetics' - a science that 'is the best theory of the nature and function of time within a narrative space' (p33). Perhaps the nature and function of time within the story which we are reading.

All of this returns to and revolves around the narrator's relationship with his father - the 'father-son' axis'. He knows he can't go back, like the people he frequently has to rescue, to try and make things o.k. but maybe a message is there.

It is a beautifully written book. In places, it's quite funny, but overall, there's a sense of inevitability, a pull between determinism and free will. It kind of reminded me of a claustrophobic version of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Chronosynclastic Infundibulum' - but small, intimate and introspective, the opposite of 'space opera'. A sort of self-deprecating introspection.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 14, 2011 11:00 AM BST

by Tricia Sullivan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, 11 Oct. 2010
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This review is from: Lightborn (Paperback)
On the face of it, 'Lightborn' might be considered a sort of high-tech zombie novel. It's not.

Everyone in the country uses the 'Lightborn' technology, or 'shine' as it is popularly known. Shine works at the lowest levels of the brain and effectively allows people to re-programme themselves. As Amir Ansari (a shine programmer but also someone who warned against the possible dangers of Lightborn) says:

'We're doomed to an essential apehood unless we can change our deepest programming. And let's face it: people have very little self-control. We're mostly a set of biological levers waiting to be pulled. But we can change that, and that's what shine can give us. Better neurochemical paths. New ways of being.' (P183)

But then, 'The Fall' happens. In the town of Los Sombres (The Shadows), 'the shiny' start going violently mad. The only ones not affected are either pre-pubertal children or 'burn-outs' - criminals and others whose brains have been changed in order to prevent them from benefiting from Shine.

Some escape into a quarantine area, gather around a ranch. Here Xavier, a 14 year-old whose puberty has been postponed by taking kisspeptin, his 'shiny' mother endlessly knitting, Powaqa, a Hopi wise-woman, Chumana, a beautiful Hopi girl, various other refugees and latterly a strange 'John Doe' character, live out a precarious existence as bombers scream overhead in futile attempts to obliterate the lights of Los Sombres.

Meanwhile, in Los Sombres itself, all is not as it seems. There are survivors and a sort of society is functioning, helped by Roksana, the Pakistani/Polish/African daughter of Amir Ansari. Although she is seventeen, she appears immune to the Shine.

Then, back at the ranch, Xavier runs out of kisspeptin. He must venture into Los Sombres to try to replenish his supply. And there Roksana and Xavier meet up.

If you've ever read any Tricia Sullivan before, you'll know that her writing sometimes borders on the hallucinogenic. At times, her worlds seem like J G Ballard's - strangers wandering around bizarre post-apocalyptic landscapes - but her writing is not nearly so cool or detached, rather more Samuel Delany or even Theodore Sturgeon. Certainly, the idea of 'Lightborn' sounds reminiscent of Delany's 'Babel-17' - like a new operating system for the brain.

'Lightborn' is not simply a zombie novel. There is way more going on here. Consider the names of the characters. Powaqa - Hopi for 'witch', Chumana - 'snake maiden'. And Roksana - from the Persian for 'star, bright, dawn' (according to Google, a popular name in Poland). There are clearly spiritual, possibly theistic, and even evolutionary overtones to the story.

And then there are the names of the sections and chapters - 'Just Another Zombie Apocalypse' (P 158), 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' (P 165), 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' (P 287), even 'Borg Moment'. All clues to the 'post-human' themes going on here.

In some ways, this is the most conventionally written of Tricia Sullivan's books to date. But thematically, it is surely the most powerful too. It is, of course, very well written, (o.k. maybe the second quarter is a bit slow). But the writing is evocative (sprinkled with four letter words by the way), her heroine is, as usual, fallible but thoroughly likeable. Overall, this is really good, thought-provoking adult science fiction.

The Quantum Thief
The Quantum Thief
by Hannu Rajaniemi
Edition: Hardcover

92 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new Classic, 5 Oct. 2010
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This review is from: The Quantum Thief (Hardcover)
I think this is likely to become a sci-fi classic. Considering that it's also the first published work by Hannu Rajaniemi, that is pretty impressive.

I have to admit that, for the first chapter or so, I thought this was just going to be another techno-geek gadgetfest but I was definitely wrong. Like another reviewer, I found the start pretty confusing as the author does not give you much of a chance to get to grips with his terminology, with the result that I was left floundering about but hanging in there; a feeling I'm used to after reading a lot of Tricia Sullivan and C J Cherryh. And, like those writers, if you bear with it long enough, it starts to come together and repays the effort with interest.

Along the way, the story pays it's dues to it's sci-fi ancestors. I mean, the Quantum Thief - Jean le Flambeur - really reminds me of Harry Harrison's 'Stainless Steel Rat', while other characters, and even whole scenes, bring to mind Alfred Bester's 'Tiger! Tiger!' and 'The Demolished Man'.

However, even the technology has literary and classical references - 'Gogol' becomes a noun to describe disembodied minds, and that gives rise to 'gogol pirates' as a major theme within the story; the control of privacy and access to memory is central - thus the architecture of the great moving Martian city has classical Greek 'agoras' or public 'places of assembly' built in to it; the use of 'exomemory' brings to mind (but in a rather more subtle way) Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon'; and, of course, there is the nice 'double entendre' of the 'Oubliette' itself. All this, though, comes together in a truly original world.

So, a very well put together world - not just the tech but the whole back story, as we get hints and bits of history of a Kingdom, a Revolution. Then, besides Jean le Flambeur, there is a whole zoo of exotic characters - the multi-talented Raymonde (who reminded me somehow of Robin Wednesbury), Mieli and her ship Perhonen, Isidore the brilliant young detective and his girlfriend Pixil from a 'zoku' tribe of virtual game players, and the millenniaire Unruh (when Time is a currency, how else to describe the mega-rich?). The variety of characters is also reflected in the narrative - alternating between Jean (first person narrative), Mieli (third person), Isidore (third person) - and the chapter structure too as, occasionally, the chapters are interrupted by 'Interludes'.

That's the tech, the characters and the story structure. But that's just the start. The story itself is wonderful, multi-layered, mind-expanding stuff. It starts off straight-forwardly enough - a prison break for the thief, a mission or perhaps commission, and off he goes. But the way it develops is extraordinary. It becomes clear that all the technology is not simply 'for show' but is central to not just the workings of the world but also to the identities of the characters. The story becomes a shifting palimpsest of memories and all those feelings of Alice-like disorientation from the beginning of the book return. Hints of realities within realities, virtual and otherwise, leave plenty of room for Hannu Rajaniemi to further investigate his remarkable world.

On top of all that, it is really well written. There are a (very) few odd clunky bits but overall the story flows really well, the imagery is strong, original and powerful.

As I said, I think this is destined to be recognised as a sci-fi classic.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 27, 2011 10:10 AM GMT

The Age Of Capital: 1848-1875
The Age Of Capital: 1848-1875
by E. J. Hobsbawm
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.48

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our own Timelord, 14 Sept. 2010
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The Age of Capital was originally the second part of a trilogy, flanked by The Age of Revolution: Europe, 1789-1848 and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. Later the series became a tetralogy with the publication of Age of Extremes : The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991.

Although each book stands up as a volume in it's own right it is very difficult, when finishing one, to not want to continue to find out 'what happens next' even if you know perfectly well what happens. And this is because, even though the books are not narratives in the normal sense of the term, the way Hobsbawm draws out the themes and events of each period really makes you want to find out how he is going to explain subsequent developments.

This volume, like the others in the series, is made up of more-or-less discreet essays on individual aspects of the period under consideration. Each subject is a chapter and the chapters are gathered together into three sections - Part 1: Revolutionary Prelude, Part 2: Developments and Part 3: Results. The chapters in Part 2 include The Great Boom, The World Unified, Conflicts and War, Building Nations, The Forces of Democracy, Losers, Winners and Changing Society. And then in Part 3, he looks at the effects of these developments.

Partly because of this structure but also partly because of the quality of the writing, it is a really interesting and illuminating read. So much of what we are living through today has its seeds in this and the previous period; to make any sense of the world today this is required reading.

There have been some criticism of Hobsbawm for being overtly Marxist in his outlook and theoretical basis. He says himself in his introduction:

"The historian cannot be objective about the period which is his subject. In this he differs (to his intellectual advantage) from its most typical ideologists, who believed that the progress of technology, 'positive science' and society made it possible to view their present with the unanswerable impartiality of the natural scientist, whose methods they believed (mistakenly) to understand. The author of this book cannot conceal a certain distaste, perhaps a certain contempt, for the age with which it deals, though one mitigated by admiration for its titanic material achievements and by the effort to understand even what he does not like. He does not share the nostalgic longing for the certainty, the self-confidence, of the mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois world which tempts many who look back upon it from the crisis-ridden western world a century later. His sympathies lie with those to whom few listened a century ago." (P17)

In the preface to this edition, he expands on these comments:

"This has been read by some as a declaration of intent to be unfair to the Victorian bourgeoisie and the age of its triumph. Since some people are evidently unable to read what is on the page, as distinct from what they think must be there, I would like to say clearly that this is not so. In fact, as at least one reviewer has correctly recognised, bourgeois triumph is not merely the organising principle of the present volume, but 'it is the bourgeoisie who receive much the most sympathetic treatment in the book'. For good or ill, it was their age, and I have tried to present it as such, even at the cost of - at least in this brief period - seeing other classes not so much in their own right, as in relation to it." (P11)

So leave your prejudices and pre-formed opinions at the door and read a remarkably inclusive, erudite and, above all, readable history of this formative period.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 16, 2010 6:42 PM BST

by Julia Holmes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Dream-like..., 7 Sept. 2010
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This review is from: Meeks (Paperback)
The story is set in a post-war city. The war only happened a generation or so ago. The enemy was close - just over the river that runs into the nearby sea, up on the hill tops capped with rows of fine pine trees.

The city below has become in some ways fossilised into a ritual way of life with wretched but ever-optimistic Bachelors, Civil Servants dressed in their grey workers smocks, the mysterious but clean smelling Brothers of Mercy, and young happy families. In the background, there are the Sheds, talked about with a sense of dread, but never visited, even if elderly relatives may have been evicted and removed to them.

The story revolves around two characters: Ben, a Bachelor, living in a Bachelor House, but seemingly doomed to stay a Bachelor as he cannot get hold of a fine grey suit but is stuck in his foul-smelling black suit of mourning, and the eponymous Meeks, living outdoors under the statue of the city's saviour Captain Meeks, perhaps a rookie policeman, trying to impress his erstwhile superior, Bedge.

Ben's story is told in the third person, Meeks as an internal first-person narrative. These stories are interspersed with 'The Brother's Tale' and 'The Father's Tale'. All men, you'll notice. The only women are memories of mothers and possible wives seen from a distance. Although the story is set in later summer, early autumn and is full of colour, sunsets and rises, it feels remarkably bleak.

What holds you though, is the writing. It is so cool and stylish, it reminded me of 'Gattaca', in some ways of 'The Handmaid's Tale' but overlaid with a Kafkaesque feeling of nightmares in broad daylight. It also has a feel of Ursula K Le Guinn's 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' both stylistically and perhaps thematically. It is, as stated, so cool and bleak and yet strangely full of sunshine that it becomes disturbing.

It's only a short book - about 189 pages long - but it manages to conjure up a powerful picture of a stratified and desperately unhappy, almost claustrophobic world. That all sounds terribly depressing, but the writing hooks you, draws you in to this world and you have to stay to the end.

Definitely a writer to watch.

Zero History
Zero History
by William Gibson
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Invisible Hand of Bigend., 1 Sept. 2010
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This review is from: Zero History (Hardcover)
It's an idea, when reading William Gibson novels, to have access to Google. For example, do you know what 'Piblokto Madness' is? And how many motorcycle courier repair workshops do you know in Southwark? (Tip: google ChasBikes and look for the legendary moustache). Do you know what a 'maggot' is in motorcycle courier terms (google 'plastic maggot'). Then again, Bigend claims to be the 'Tanky' in 'Tanky & Tojo' but, before taking this at face value, just try googling Tanky & Tojo - found it? Two World War II SAS heroes, the former becoming one of the most feared Met CID officers in Soho. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

So, what we have here is a virtual potpourri of cultural, subcultural and emergent cultural references all tied together in a narrative that finally arrives at a pretty satisfying and, unusually, funny denouement. It's good.

But it is more than just a ripping techno-yarn. For a start, Gibson's writing is so condensed and concentrated that you have to keep your wits (as well as your Google) about you at all times. It is also incredibly evocative:

"Inchmale hailed a cab for her, the kind that had always been black, when she'd first known this city". (P 1)

So the book opens, in London (the cab), one familiar character, one we can hazard a guess at.

This is the third novel featuring the wonderful Hubertus Bigend, that James Bond-ian childlike villain that we first met in 'Pattern Recognition'. He is rather more obviously the central figure here. Still in charge of Blue Ant, the marketing company on the edge of post-modernist melt-down:

"That Hubertus erects his life, and his business, in a way guaranteed to continually take him over the edge. Guaranteed to produce a new edge he'll have to go over". (P 176-7)

In this post-modernist world, where all narratives purport to have the same value, where we have reached the cliched 'End of History', we end up with no values, just searching for a new novelty, a new form of novelty:

"Its about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It's about deeper code" (P 116).

So what is he after? Well, ostensibly, he's after the 'secret brand'. If everything is equivalent, if everything is marketed, how do you stamp your individuality? By selecting a secret brand. A brand whose marketing is based on non-marketing, on a 'wink and a nod'. And the conflation of fashion and military wear:

"If a great deal of men's clothing today is descended from U.S. military designs, and it is, and the U.S. military is having trouble living up to their heritage, and they are, someone whose genius in some recombinant grasp of the semiotics of mass-produced American clothing...Foolish not to look at the possibilities. In any case, it's getting hot now". (P 197)

Is that it? Is that all there is? Well, no. It turns out Bigend is after something even bigger:

"The 'order flow' - 'It's the aggregate of all the orders in the market. Everything anyone is about to buy or sell, all of it. Stocks, bonds, gold, anything. If I understood him, that information exists, at any given moment, but there's no aggregator. It exists, constantly, but is unknowable. If someone were able to aggregate that, the market would cease to be real' (P 177)

Is this the 'invisible hand of the market'? - market as chaos, only given structure as it 'becomes'.

"The market is the inability to aggregate the order flow at any given moment." (p 177).

At 404 pages, this is probably Gibson's longest book to date. It's so full of fine detail, thought-provoking ideas, condensed metaphors and great characters that you'll wish it was longer. There are one or two excellent surprises in it too - but they do rather rely on you having read 'Pattern Recognition' and 'Spook Country' - this is far more the final part of a trilogy than the 'Sprawl' books were.

Excellent - well worth waiting for. Thank-you again Mr Gibson :-)
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 21, 2011 7:08 AM BST

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