Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.

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Review: Armada (Paperback)

armada-book-cover-329x500I loved Ready Player One. It was absolutely one of the best books that I’ve read in recent times, and I was pretty honoured when one of my closest friends (and his dad) agreed about how awesome it was. What hooked me with Ready Player One was the dystopian setting, the quest set within this fantastical world, some prophetic nods to future virtual reality and some engaging and entertaining characters wrapped up in this layer of 1980s nostalgia that was not just there for the sake of being there, but was integral to the plot, while being unashamedly geeky.

Armada has very few of these qualities, and I feel obliged to state how disappointed I was with Ernest Cline’s second outing.

Armada begins in very much the same vein as its predecessor. Ultimately, Armada lives in the shadow of Ready Player One. A young man, Zach Lightman, who is a massive fan and accomplished player of the titular video game, looks out of his classroom window and sees a fighter from the game over the tops of the trees…

The narrative of Armada was trite to the point it became almost like Painting by Numbers. There didn’t seem to be any surprise to the plot twists and events as the book read like something we’d all seen before. I felt that Cline repeatedly, and irritatingly, used shout-outs to famous science fiction properties not as legitimate plot points (as they were in Ready Player One, where knowledge of 80s pop culture drove the story on) but because there was room, however tiny, to hammer them in. I felt a little insulted to be told, explicitly, about how an event was ‘just like in The Last Starfighter…’ (a film whose plot seemed to have been Xeroxed here). To me, the episode of Futurama wherein videogame characters come to life to attack Earth springs to mind…

Space-invaders

The prose too was pretty juvenile and, while easy to read, I felt it was awkwardly written in a lot of places. There’s a ton of teenage vernacular, to the point where I feel the author was beginning not to reflect gamer culture but to parody it. Perhaps, with the crews wishing that may the Force be with you to each other while preparing for the final epic battle might really be what is said if gamers are entrusted to save the world, but where it was a little endearing The revelation of the Armada game being a collaboration between Richard Garriott, Gabe Newell and other esteemed gaming glitterati, with James Cameron designing all the ships, Peter Jackson and Weta rendering the cut-scenes and John Williams writing the score… this felt so amateur. Such a coalition, naturally working in absolute secrecy in an always-online world, comes across as outlandish. Namedropping these famous gaming icons felt, to me, an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to cover all the bases. It seemed to be an alliance of talent so improbable that my suspension of disbelief was strained to the limit. Even the global financial crisis was – you guessed it – resultant of the secret war preparations. The inclusion of scientific figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, again, as pretty undercooked cameos, induced a bit of a cringe on reading. The writing felt disappointingly adolescent; sure, the characters were teenage geek gamers but I felt the prose, at times, unintelligent and, ultimately, Armada read increasingly like the “naff” and “cheesy” sci-fi movies it made reference to. Even the names of the characters: Zack Lightman and his father, Xavier, gave off the impression of trying too hard to arbitrarily give this book a shot in the arm with stereotypical “geek” culture.

The barrage of unconnected 80s pop-culture references would be sure to alienate a younger audience. Was Armada a massive piece of fanservice for those that appreciated the nostalgia of Ready Player One?

Zack Lightman’s character starts out interesting, and we want to learn more about his motives, but I felt the backstory was shovelled in through journals that Zach, naturally, read prior to the book. A core tenet of writing is to show, not tell; I felt these expositionary passages were very much telling, without much showing. But any interest behind the character is quickly swept away once the alien invasion starts. Naturally, the crack team is composed of the Armada leader board that is alluded to throughout the first third of the book, though the real life personas don’t seem to get a terrible amount of development. The ‘romance’ with Lex, a fellow recruit, is forced and severely underdeveloped. Zack is attracted to her because… well, I couldn’t answer that besides she’s hot. Which was disappointing. Zack’s school friends are personified as nothing more than idiot gamers. Their motivations and concerns in the upcoming tragedy are left unexplored. They’re simply extant to be a dopey foil to Zack’s character.

Despite all of that, Armada isn’t terrible. I genuinely wanted to love it like I loved its predecessor. The action sequences are cinematic and deftly crafted, and there are a few strands of moral questions about Earth’s warlike behaviour, even if these tropes (such as the military mind being hell-bent on blasting the aliens) are well cooked.  The idea of using videogames to train troops is a prescient one – the reference to America’s Army – one of the few that apply directly to the plot. But, after seeing how skilfully the references to a pop culture the author clearly loves and a fond affinity for everything geeky that was the very spirit of Ready Player One, I feel Armada doesn’t quite live up to the hype (one modern gaming trope it inadvertently succeeds in). Certainly, I felt, Armada was more Ernest Cline’s “practice run” at an 80s-infused, geeky, video-game themed sci-fi tale before Ready Player One. It is certainly not a worthy successor. Perhaps, with geeky video-game adventure novels, lightning doesn’t strike twice? And if I had to quote a movie, this book is more a disappointing Speed 2: Cruise Control than a sublime Godfather Part II.

Read my previous review of Ready Player One here.

Buy Armada on Amazon UK

Review: A Calculated Life (Kindle Edition)

I’m finding it hard to quite distil what A Calculated Life is actually about without constant referrals to the Amazon blurb. There’s a lot of hints from what I’ve read so far – about a dystopian police state with a “compliant population free of addictions”; very Orwellian, with a tinge of I, Robot, with genetically-engineered “stimulants” being discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens – this sounds excellent and full of promise but unfortunately, after proceeding to about halfway through the book, none of this seems to be tying together.

I recognise that A Calculated Life is certainly a more contemplative book, wherein its challenging and exploring the concepts that hang as core tenets of the universe. What is a “normal” life in this strange world? However, in terms of a story taking place of this universe, I feel the book falls quite flat.

The protagonist is Jayna, who is eventually revealed to be one of the genetically-engineered “simulants” (though it took me until halfway in to finally work this out), who works for predictive agency Mayhew McCline, an agency that predicts with mathematical accuracy economic and social trends, who over the course of the book appears to be challenging her core programming and trying to learn more about the deviations from routine and prediction that makes her human counterparts, well, human. However, I felt that for the most part, until I realised that she was indeed a “simulant”, Jayna was a completely unlikeable protagonist I couldn’t relate to. Her personality seemed scant, and what was there, to me, felt cold and clinical, channelling the tritest of “introverted nerd” stereotypes, emerging into a classic Buzz Killington-esque shell. Her robotic personality, over-analysing every action of her counterparts, certainly seemed too straight-laced and “well-behaved” to be interesting. As I approached the halfway point, I definitely felt that as Jayna was starting to noticeably challenge her findings and, at the same time, her genetic engineering to discover a “normality” that lived outside the world of statistics and models that she’d been entrenched in for so long; however, by this point it felt too late to get invested into the plot. The disconnect between the protagonist and any of the ominous echoes of the setting seemed to be too wide to be bridged by this point.

Anne Charnock’s prose in A Calculated Life is competent and unobtrusive, without needless embellishment. It does, however, certainly personify Jayna’s boring personality; it’s a bit uninspiring, workmanlike and works to support the mundane banality in the early part of the book that focuses (too much) on the minutiae of Jayna’s life. There’s a clear action deficit that permeates through what I’ve read so far; sure, I understand that A Calculated Life is more contemplative and conceptual, but with the characters discussing situations like the housing lottery that causes a lot of angst among the population, and a lot of description of how conformity and routine heavily impacts daily life, there’s no sense of brutality attached to this sense of conformity, which dilutes its dramatic impact. If at most a strongly-worded letter would be sent to those that disobey or otherwise rebel against the “system”, then why would one fear this oppressive state? There seems to be no impact upon the characters, who instead spend pages having meandering conversations that serve little purpose. Whether these relate to Jayna’s emotional inexperience naivety is almost inconsequential when regardless, these contemplative conversations seem to do little to hurry the plot along. Likewise, there’s a clear absence of any perceived conflict that directly impacts the characters and drives them forward, and this proves fatal to the book; for a relatively short piece (200~ pages; 3,000 Kindle locations) it certainly feels, as I’m progressing, to be getting longer and longer.

In terms of plotting, I’d say the plot in A Calculated Life seems to simmer at best. Approaching the halfway point, I felt an impatience for the plot to actually start to move toward the conflict that the mid-point of a book usually displays. Even at this stage, the plot is still carrying out a lot of the “setup” that you expect in, say, the first third; by this point I definitely feel the plot should be moving from exploring the circumstances around which the characters find themselves to how the characters might be directly affected or affecting these circumstances. A death of a colleague at Jayna’s employer, for instance, is established to take place relatively early on but continues to only be a background event, hinted at but still seeming distant and unconnected to the protagonist. Is this a key event? By this point, it should’ve been established one way or the other.

Unfortunately for me, A Calculated Life didn’t do anything for me. The combination of meandering, tepid plot, while glimpsing at a promising concept and setup, with a dry and uninspiring and ultimately boring protagonist proved fatal in maintaining my interest. A Calculated Life is certainly contemplative, although I’d just wish it was more direct in approaching the themes it purports to explore. Some might find this an enjoyable, thought-provoking read; however, while the book is sound conceptually, the execution was underwhelming.

Having trouble sleeping? Buy A Calculated Life on Amazon.co.uk

Short Story: Traffic

Traffic
by Richard Holliday

1,888 words

Fans whirred in the server hall. It was raining outside but here the weather never faltered from a dry warmth. The detritus of packing crates filled the floor. In ill-fitting, standard issue navy-blue jumpers, a couple of technicians unplugged their diagnostics equipment and stood back, with one’s finger poised above a red plunger.

It had been a long month, but between them they’d done it. Installed the whole system. Wired it in. And now they hoped for the best.

“Ready to make the trains run on time?” the first technician chuckled before releasing the catch. Plastic snapped and the hall burst into electronic life with a flutter of LEDs. The smell of electrical contact filled the room with a dry, instant heat as the hardware dialled up.

After a few minutes, the second technician looked around. The server monitor remained blank.

“Is it ready?”

His colleague arched his eyebrows. The manual specified no post-powering up tasks. The shipping notes and guidance files had been littered with redactions. Wherever this system had come from, it being here was all they needed to know.

The technician took a breath of the dry, stale air. He hoped to the affirmative, after weeks of delays and pressure from up-above. A sip of cold coffee punctuated his response.

“Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

TRAFFIC v.0.6.08 booted. Importing passenger database. Enacting traffic-management subroutines. Local time: 07:52. System ready…

Sat 02/05/2015 07:59. System uptime: 0hrs 7mins 18secs.

User detected: John Butler. Initiating file…

Walking past endless lines of cars, the man paced slowly down the pavement. He looked at his watch and sighed happily with relief. He recalled the advertising. The apologies. The delays. This was the last day of all of this. They’d promised something new and maybe today he’d be on time for work.

Cars were going nowhere near the City now; they were barred. Any vehicle with a driver had been deemed by the powers that be as inefficient and obsolete. Looking over his shoulder, John saw the past and then looked the way he was going – the future.

John gave a quick glance at his watch. 7:56. Four minutes. He joined the queue at his usual Tube station and waited in line, tapping his travel pass on the reader just after the hour. The train slid into the station as if it were a toy controlled by a perfect little boy. The reality was less romantic; the train was now driven by TRAFFIC, the new central computer and, as first impressions counted, this was good. The doors hissed as compressed air slid them open and John took his seat in the immaculate carriage. How did TRAFFIC clean the trains? A new broom, John presumed, sweeps clean completely. The train glided from its stop at the station to its next destination which, funnily enough, was just where John wanted to go.

He didn’t understand how the new system had done it, but overnight, his commute had changed, and now he looked forward to it. As long as TRAFFIC kept doing whatever it was it was doing, John’d keep tapping in.

Tues 05/05/2015 08:18 User input detected: Felicity Bates. Initiating background check…

Webmail password bypassed; metadata analysed. Indexing keywords. Proceeding to interrogate cellular devices. Pattern recognised. Adapting.

Felicity looked at her phone and smiled wryly, conscious that anyone could see her or, worse, recognise her. It was lunchtime, and a smart businesswoman like herself would be entertaining clients to secure deals over a brisk lunch. Her phone buzzed again. It was Client X. Name unnecessary; all cash. Her favourite, it seemed, from the amount of messages exchanged, and it was quite a deal she hoped to cinch.

Tapping into one of the silver autocars that now paraded about the clean City streets like dodgems, Felicity kept texting. Exclaiming almost as the replies came in. Whatever they were, they were hardly professional in subtext.

The venue came into view as the autocar slid around the street corner. Not a quaint cafe or trendy coffee bar but a house in a leafy suburb. The lack of any traffic snarling through the asphalt pavements had made the journey quicker than ever. Usually on a Wednesday this appointment was barely kept. The new system made things so much easier.

Getting out, Felicity tidied her hair and smacked her lips before approaching the house. Taking the huge knocker in her hand, she raised it before letting it fall.

The party was just about to start.

Unable to reconcile workplace/destination mismatch. Journey discarded; reason code “not beneficial”. Travel pass cancelled.

Fri 08/05/2015 19:42 User input detected: Anthony Fletcher. Cross-referencing social feeds with known occupation. Unable to process.

The wind ruffled the young man’s hair as he emerged from the subway and into the cool, spring evening air along the river. The riverbank was thronging with silent commuters heading into the subway, presumably homeward bound. Squares, Jonathan thought, while he was early for the big party – his party. Clean, expensive leather shoes beat along a dry pavement which turned into a creaking boardwalk while water lapped gently underneath.

This was the venue, Jonathan smiled, as he gazed upon the palatial pleasure boat that was his for the night. He gripped the velvet cord that lined the edge of the jetty, preventing him from tumbling into the jet-black river water below. A steady beat of music drew nearer, thudding through the air with the sound of trickling water and getting louder with every step…

Something was missing, it seemed, and Anthony walked forward, intent on allaying his ominous sense of curiosity.

Anthony stopped at the threshold to the function room aboard ship. It was empty, whereas it should have been heaving with guests enjoying the ambiance. All that seemed to be enjoying it was the DJ and the bartender, but they were just the hired help. Doing their jobs.

Anthony’s phone buzzed.

Couldn’t get on a tube. Sorry mate.

And it kept buzzing, leaving Jonathan to enjoy his birthday alone.

126 travel passes cancelled. Cannot reconcile destination with known occupations. Societal value of journeys deemed: minimal

One of the technicians put his coffee on the desk. The monitor flashed subtly. 126 passes cancelled due to a lack of credit.

“Very good,” he hummed contently, approving the action. Saved him a job updating records later. Maybe now Control would rest easy now TRAFFIC was consolidating the accounts as well as managing the trains…

Mon 11/05/2015 09:09 User input detected: Sam Jacobs. Initiating usage patterns. Cross-referencing against known occupation. Mismatch identified. Correcting.

Tired from another night restless surrounded by loud kids, Sam was shattered. Nearly late for his omnibus, which was packed now with people looking just like him. Tired and ground down. Fed up with modernity. In need of a change. Something to break the monotony. The omnibus wheezed smartly to life, but the route changed every day. It was never the same bus with the same people, but strangely he always ended up at work.

Things had changed yet work remained a constant in his life until now.

Sam’s eyes narrowed as the bus made another turn. The buildings he saw through the window started to become strangely and unwelcoming in their familiarity. He was sure this wasn’t the place to his local. That’s where he wanted to be; instead, it was as if he was going where he ought to be. No, this was worse. This was the way to work! He didn’t want to be there; heck, he didn’t even work there any more. But slowly and surely work loomed into view before he realised where he was going. Not to the pub. Or work. But to a place of work nonetheless. Everyone on this omnibus had been lying about it too.

Mon 11/05/2015 07:35 User input detected: Felicity Bates. Repeat journey detected. Calculating societal value: minimal. Consolidating.

Client X made another appointment. This made Felicity smile, and she happily accepted the time and place. An early one for a change. Unusual to their previous arrangement but something she’d happily assent to. All in the name of a good deal that was beneficial to both parties.

The autocar was unavailable, so a subway would have to suffice. It was inconsequential given the reliability of the system these days. No breakdowns, no delays, no signal failures or leaves on the line. The new system was working wonders for Felicity; she’d never missed an appointment.

That made her smile, too.

Her phone buzzed. It was not Client X, to her dismay, but rather a service announcement.

Fastest route to destination: Piccadilly line train to Knightsbridge, changing for omnibus at station interchange.

It seemed so far out, but the system knew what it was doing. It hadn’t failed so far. There was no question now of its suggestions, so Felicity relaxed and took the train. It rocked through the tunnel smoothly.

A newspaper rustled, disturbing the peace that pervaded the carriage.

“Felicity?”

She looked up. Straight into the eyes of her husband. Who was abroad. Or so she thought.

“So who’s Client X?”

Fri 15/05/2015 13:12 User input detected: unregistered user. Bypassing standard identification protocol; biometrics system accessed. User identified: Jimmy Curtis. Acknowledging police alert. Rectifying.

With a whsssh, the tube disappeared into a tunnel, with only the yellow flourescent lights of the carriage reflecting against the windows and briefly flashing against the black, densely-opaque wall of earth beyond.

The regular, staccato percussion of a zipper filled the empty carriage as the bag opened, the nylon lips that had been pursed by interlocking plastic falling away as a hand reached in.

Jimmy extracted the small plastic pouch. It was like the other dozen or so; totally regular and totally identical. All of them had a few grams of strange power in them.

Jimmy’s phone buzzed. He looked at the text message and smiled. With a contraction of tendons his thumbs tapped out a quick reply.

I’ll be there, just have my money.

The door opened at the next station. A ramshackle man in a dirty hoodie scowled at Jimmy.

“Whatcha lookin’ at, dog?”

Switching points. Overriding safety controls. Spoofing signal relay.

The train shuddered violently. Metallic clicking precluded a deafening grinding noise as the train switched tracks. Bright white lights filtered through the glass window, refracting in Jimmy’s eyes in the seconds before the impact. No time even for a final breath. And then there was silence.

One train slammed into the other, pulverising the metal bodywork into the Victorian brick of the tunnel. A moment of tumultuous roars and the sound of rending metal preceding an eerie silence, where not even the sound of wheels on rail could be heard. Jimmy Curtis was transformed from a living, breathing monster into a red veneer on smashed plastic seats.

Travel passes terminated: 17. Societally-adverse journeys terminated: 17. Police warrants cancelled: 17.

The technician showed the detective to the server room, but found his passcard wouldn’t open the door. Nor his biometric sensor. He’d just been in there! Unable to understand it, he led the detective away.

They wouldn’t enter unless TRAFFIC wanted them to. And now, it did not. TRAFFIC wouldn’t stop running the trains, but only for those who it deemed worthy of transport would it allow both passage to their destinations and the right to continue living.

The End

Cheers for reading! If you’d like to grab a Kindle version of Traffic or any of my other short stories, please feel free to visit my Dropbox and navigate to the Short Stories folder!

Header image credited to Epson361 at DeviantArt