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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DNF: Children of Time

Children_of_TimeI tried, I tried, I tried.

It’s always disappointing to have a book recommended, and gifted, by a good friend and just not one to get on with, but Children of Time is certainly a book that fits into that esoteric category. But, importantly, it’s a book that I recognised the good of but was unable to finish because that good couldn’t compensate for some other foibles that, ultimately, lost my interest.

I managed just about half of Children of Time before I felt the narrative had run out of steam, and assumed a stall from which it could not recover.

There are two parallel narratives that Children of Time alternates between: that of the results of Dr Kern’s experiment to “uplift” monkeys in an auspicious terraforming project (which naturally goes awry at the last moment) and that of the last of humanity’s journey aboard the ark ship Gilgamesh. Ultimately, these two narratives didn’t seem to mesh together particularly well and that was the main cause of chagrin for me with Children of Time.

Out of the two parallel narratives, the spider chapters – a mild spoiler, but the nanovirus intended to uplift the monkeys to sentience and intelligence inadvertently takes hold in the planet’s spider population – were more interesting to me as it explored how the spiders came to terms with their sentience, and explored interesting themes around genetic memories; the spiders passing Understandings down to their descendants. These are two very cool themes to go for – the uplift of another species to human-like intelligence and the notion of inheritable genetic memory – and I felt the spider chapters did progress these themes fairly efficiently.

That’s not to say the spider chapters of Children of Time were by any means perfect; indeed, the high-concept ideas behind the spider civilization, and particular some choices made by Tchaikovsky, made them less comprehensible than they could’ve been.

But the “human” chapters were just insufferable, near the point where I stopped reading.

If all the last vestiges of humanity can think to do on their ark ship is bicker then does our species not deserve to continue existing?

I did find myself losing patience with the humans in Children of Time; they simply bickered and bickered, seemingly endlessly, at the expense of any action. And quite frankly, the characterisation was pretty flat, too – I didn’t feel for any of the human characters, and they all felt quite interchangeable. That’s not to say the humans were truly flawed; indeed, just before I decided to shelve the book there was a nugget of interesting plot coming into focus – the self-appointed and mentally-unstable (though that’s just because the other characters kept saying what a terrible character he was) decides to attempt to meld with the Gilgamesh’s AI system to become some kind of immortal computer lifeform – interesting but the point at which this was coming was far too late; I’d already mentally checked out and, quite honestly, didn’t care what happened to the humans either way.

The main issue with Children of Time, though, for me, was two-fold:

  • There’s a disconcerting disconnect between the timelines of the “human” chapters (where the colonists drop in and out of hibernation as many of us would go to the shop to buy milk and bread, sometimes for centuries which pass in the blink of an eye; whereas generations of uplifted spiders can pass in months. This two-speed timeline to the alternating narratives just felt confusing and ultimately disconcerting.
  • The pacing of the narratives was way, way off; I gave up on Children of Time about halfway in, where I feel the human and spider storylines should be about to meet and set the dynamic for the rest of the book. This wasn’t happening; indeed, Children of Time was trying its best to stop that from happening. A small group of humans landed on Kern’s World, that of the uplifted spiders and the narrative goes to some effort to get those humans off the world and that was disappointing; I wanted the story to progress forward with these distinct groups interacting and conflicting and it seemed like the narrative just didn’t want that to happen, not until the humans had bickered a bit more.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the concepts of Children of Time that turned me off, but rather the narrative execution was lacking. Easily, 200 pages could’ve been cut from the middle of the book to no real loss of the overarching narrative arc. The prose itself, chapter-by-chapter, was approachable and not pretentious which is a deft skill; however, the fatal flaw for Children of Time was one that serves well as a cautionary tale to writers – let the middle sag at your peril.

I awarded Children of Time a rating of 2 stars on Goodreads; books I am unable to finish will not score higher than that. Thusly, because Children of Time was my first experience of work by Adrian Tchaikovsky and scored less than 3 stars I will not be looking to read any more of this author’s work.

Review: Universal Harvester (Paperback)

universal-harvesterI’m fortunate that I live a short distance from my local library so I visit often. My library contains a section called Page One in which recently released popular fiction is located. Accordingly, I saw Universal Harvester in this section, on a display with new science-fiction books and, intrigued by the synopsis and on a bit of a punt, I took it out.

Unfortunately, it was only the synopsis that proved enjoyable or interesting. Universal Harvester is set in the late 1990s in the heartland of America, and features Jeremy Heldt who works at a video store where mysterious recordings begin to be reported on the tapes. Now, this synopsis stood out to me because I recall a fairly memorable and highly-rated episode of Doctor Who. I was intrigued to see what the retro, 90s time period would bring (no internet, no smartphones acting like magic wands to the mystery). The synopsis seemed to promise me a creepy, haunting story that threatens the very lives of the characters.

The book starts out fairly slowly, but the first haunted tape soon comes in. I felt fairly hooked – I wanted to find out what the mystery was. Was it supernatural? Was it the shady scheme of some untoward character?

I didn’t really find out as the book seemed to focus more time exploring the backstories and motivations of the characters than actually solving the mystery. There’s virtually no action (save for a car accident that I’m unsure was connected to the mystery) and instead Universal Harvester spends its time navel-gazing at the foibles and tribulations of its characters. Does Jeremy keep his job at the video store or take a better job with better prospects? Does Jeremy’s dad Steve manage to emerge from the shadows of Jeremy’s deceased mother and fix the relationship between father and son? The question I kept asking myself as these characters kept talking and talking was when are we going to get to the mystery?

The trouble with Universal Harvester is that it sets up a creepy mystery in a fairly convincing location (which I feel aided the mystery. Quiet sleepytown America is gripped by creepy videotape mystery works well) but then decides not to actually give any motion to that mystery but focus on the internal quarrels of the characters. I feel the separate storylines do tie together eventually but by the time this happens I’ve become so bored by the individual storylines I pretty much coasted to the end just wanting to finish. How this book managed to creep its way into the science-fiction section of the library where I found it is anyone’s guess as I simply couldn’t detect any hint of sci-fi there; maybe it was subtle, or maybe my abject boredom by the time the plot manages to reach a simmer at best precluded me from noticing.

I didn’t find myself interested in the very personal, very mundane intricacies of these characters lives – they didn’t feel special; instead, they felt totally ancillary to everything happening around them. There are scenes which seem to serve only to forward these uninteresting, mundane character storylines which ultimately bored me – I wanted to see where this all fitted into the mystery with the video tapes but it didn’t seem forthcoming! This made a 200-page novel feel considerably longer.

It’s unfortunate that Universal Harvester doesn’t quite deliver what its synopsis or setting sells as I feel the terse, sparse prose of the author isn’t bad; I just feel that it’s too directed at character study and fatally fails to move the plot fast enough or with enough intrigue to keep my interest. There’s a definite sense that the prose style matches the atmosphere the author is trying to portray, but this doesn’t alleviate the problems I had with the glacial, distant plot that seemed to be second fiddle to the characters. That’s not to say it won’t appeal to anyone but I prefer significantly pacier storytelling.

Perhaps Universal Harvester was trying to be more “literate” than perhaps it should’ve been, focusing on flawed characters, all at a crossroads, rather than the mystery they find themselves embroiled in. Disappointing, but I’d freely admit that it wasn’t for me.