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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Book Review: Nobody True

It is with some happy coincidence that this is my 200th post on On Holliday!

Nobody_True

I recall when exactly Nobody True was brought to my attention – my friend and fellow blogger Chris Kenny posted a comment on an Instagram post I’d made.

Seeing Nobody True in Waterstones reminded me of his endorsement so I picked it up to add it to my growing collection of James Herbert novels.

Nobody True is both my favourite and least favourite James Herbert novel I’ve read so far – which is an interesting statement to make.

The premise of Nobody True is something I found appealing – James True has been having out-of-body experiences (OBEs) since childhood. One night his spirit is on an OBE… and his body is brutally butchered. The story follows True as he discovers the culprit behind his physical murder and some truths that shock him to his very core.

Nobody True is, on reflection, a great read for a James Herbert fan; less so a beginner. This is because James True’s story as an illustrator who works up to the position of art director in an advertising agency is one that should ring true to anyone with a working knowledge of the author’s background – the character of James True is heavily based upon that of James Herbert himself, who started out as an art director in advertising before publishing The Rats in 1974. I found this streak of the author imbued into the protagonist really quite charming and as a fan who’s done a little bit of homework to know more about Herbert’s background as an author it’s really rewarding!

I did like the premise of the book – it’s suitably spooky and has plenty of potential but the execution of it was disappointing. Nobody True is told from the perspective of James True’s experience and this narrative is very susceptible to repetition and generally it feels like it needs a good edit for pacing.

Nobody True could easily be 100 pages shorter with no appreciable “loss” of story. Again, this really disappointed me – especially toward the middle. The protagonist for a good deal of the middle seems to be totally incidental to the plot – that is, the protagonist, in being unable to be heard, or otherwise physically interact or effect events as they happen, becomes as incidental and as the reader and it becomes a hard read after several chapters of James True essentially explaining repeatedly how he is unable to affect anything he is witnessing.

That said, the tension does ramp up with a classic, Herbert-esque scene that grabbed my attention back – the assailant who murders James True strikes again with a brutal scene of debauchery and defilement set in a car park. I won’t spoil it here but it’s a grisly but gratifying scene to read – evoking shades of Herbert’s earlier work, like the infamous gym scene from The Fog as a prime example, but obviously a lot of the gory scenes from The Rats, Lair and Domain too.

Reflecting, Nobody True is a really great idea for a story that I feel Herbert nearly got right. There’s plenty of twists once the book gets going (I liked the initial setup of the book, it felt like the scene was set for the reader to make a conclusion about the culprit, only for that to be nicely twisted in the finale).

However, it pains me to arrive at this conclusion but it wasn’t his most finessed work so I can’t rate it as highly as I’d like. The narrative choice was surprisingly clunky and it did drag in parts toward the middle – the pace did lift but for the most part I feel the astral form of James True as a character was just too much of a bystander to events for too long. Also: the use of footnotes was an interesting (if a little unorthodox) device but these too could’ve been omitted as they’re mostly just extra exposition.

It really disappoints me to write this about a James Herbert novel as I really did want to enjoy Nobody True to the extent that I’ve enjoyed previous books like Domain and The Fog. The idea was sound and the execution was 70% there – it just needed a final push from a good editor and this book would’ve been a song. The revelations of the dual meaning behind its title toward the conclusion were good, it’s just getting there felt a tad arduous (my attention was grabbed again by a well-timed gore scene but that scene being where it was seemed to be more by happy accident than by design, which again just leaves me with the aftertaste of mild disappointment).

Nevertheless though, I did ultimately enjoy Nobody True and it’s certainly a book I feel seasoned fans of James Herbert will appreciate – just perhaps not one for someone’s introduction! Ultimately, it’s left me wanting to read more about the use of OBEs as a narrative device… just in a more finessed and agile form. On that basis, Nobody True is rated as recommended, as opposed to highly recommended.

Book Review: Artemis

ArtemisMemorably a few years ago I had the pleasure to read Andy Weir’s excellent space-based thriller The Martian, which received a glowing review from myself. The Martian was accessible on account of its relatable protagonist Mark Watney but highly-plausible in terms of the science behind i t – Weir clearly had a keen affinity for space exploration, so the suspension of disbelief to think the events of The Martian could really happen wasn’t stretching into fantasy. It’s a quality I adore in science-fiction technothrillers and Weir’s ability to weave a great, engaging story in some hard science is comparable only to one author I can currently think of: Michael Crichton, whose Jurassic Park I adore as one of my favourite books ever.

Previously to The Martian I’d read the excellent Ready Player One. It received a similarly positive review. However, quite notably… its sequel Armada was a lot less finessed. I remember quite clearly feeling that Armada was the same but not quite as good… not by a long way.

Therefore, approaching Artemis I entered with caution, with the disappointment of Armada keenly felt.

However, Artemis is no Armada.

With Artemis, Weir takes his winning formula – the relatable, easy-going protagonist who’s easy to follow with some fantastically realised extrapolation of science that seems to exist just thirty minutes into the contemporary future – and iterates it well.

The protagonist in Artemis, Jazz Bashara, takes a lot of hints from Mark Watney in The Martian. She’s a not-too-serious, feisty (ugh, what word) denizen of the lunar city of Artemis. She is, essentially, still Watney at her core. The character takes so many hints from Watney that it’s hard not to compare – the fact that Jazz is a young non-practising Muslim woman seems incidental.

Now that might sound like the character is flawed and badly developed, and that Weir only has “one” mould for a protagonist once you strip away the embellishments. That’s partly true but Watney’s personality – and Artemis does reference this so it’s at least somewhat self-aware – is the main driving force behind The Martian and we grow to like the protagonist, some cringey, Dad-joke worthy phrases aside.

The plot too, on paper, looks formulaic, but it’s the rich description of both the city of Artemis and how it works that sells it as a location. We quickly get a sense of the divisions within Artemis, between the rich and poor that exists in most cities. But the action is deftly described, with a clear path of incident throughout, each act raising the stakes, with obstacles that even the most assiduous protagonist simply cannot counter in the time allowed.

Ultimately, too, Artemis seems to be a polemic, hinted at, about how human society adapts to reaching beyond terra firma, and the importance of knowing one’s place in history. The plot becomes more monumental the further down the story we go – we move from a heist and corporate subterfuge to a critique of protectionism and the realisation that events here and now can shape the kind of society that Artemis, as a frontier town of old, in the barren landscape of new, will become. What seems like a business opportunity seems bound to set the stage for the next chapter in society’s development.

That’s not me over-egging it. I got a lot from Artemis, and it’s a fully-encapsulated story. It might be cliched at points, with some Dad-trying-to-be-cool-esque prose that seems a little awkward… but this is not a fatal error. These turns of phrase, while clunky, yes, are little noticeable but hardly catastrophic. If anything, they add to the epistolary hinting toward the narrative structure, in that Jazz is telling us the story in the truest sense. Yes Artemis is trope-laden, but that’s not to its detriment as an enjoyable thriller. The setting adds challenge and isn’t just a backdrop.

Ultimately if you go into it expecting anything more you’ll be disappointed. The allegory and political point-making I alluded to is kept at arm’s length to the core story, as it rightly should be. Artemis is a fantastic follow-up for The Martian, neither a sequel or a prequel but more a companion on one’s shelf, and iterates in generous form on the winning formula of that book.

Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark_MatterDark Matter was one of those books I saw trending on Goodreads that piqued my interest… not for any specific reason but I just liked the sound of it. I finally saw it in Waterstones recently and took the plunge.

I’m glad I did – Dark Matter hooked me from the first chapter! The scenes of normalcy it built up – Jason Dessen, a physics lecturer, popping out for an errand, leaving his perfect, happy family, only for this normalcy to be breathlessly subverted as he is abducted on the way home. It hooked me quickly, wanting to know quite what happened leading up to this moment – what made Jason Dessen special – and how the narrative goes from there. It’s an intoxicating, intriguing opening that really hooks you in; certainly did for me!

I can’t say I wasn’t a little concerned with the science-fiction aspects. Dark Matter is billed a “mindbending” and deals with the theory of multiple universes coexisting with our own. I was a little sceptical – this concept can be quite high and dry indeed. I was worried as I advanced through the book as to whether this science-fiction aspect would not hit the mark with me and leave the plot out in the cold.

Fortunately, this was not the case. The multiverse theory is dealt with quite deftly I thought – Jason’s abductor is revealed to be Jason from another universe where life turned out very differently. This Jason – Jason2 – is the inventor of a strange box that allows him to travel with ease between the multiverses.

This development later on in the book explains some of the mystery surrounding the first third of the book and it sets up some satisfying twists. Crucially, Dark Matter doesn’t hammer home the multiverse theory at its root too hard; it’s easy to wrap oneself up in the theory. I’ve recently been reading the Long Earth series by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett; those books deal with a similar idea to Dark Matter but I found that as the “space” in which the story can take place – multiple worlds, or multiple “instances” of Earth – increases, the narrative pacing just dilutes out to fill that space. It collapses like a souffle.

Thankfully, this fate does not befall Dark Matter. Instead the scientific principle at the root of the story doesn’t weigh it down – the story provides a great, and thankfully finite, context with which to explain a complicated theory. That’s what, I feel, Dark Matter did so right – it focussed on the characters it proposes for a thrilling mystery. It also explores the multiverse theory, the idea that “things are the same but a little bit different” through the lens of massive macro changes to the world as a result but it better focusses through Jason’s micro perspective – his wife and son.

Now I can’t really comment on the accuracy (or lack of) in how Dark Matter portrays the multiverse theory; it’s a bit beyond me. However, the projection of the theory that Dark Matter presents fits the story nicely and doesn’t overpower the narrative. It fits the mood and the tone of the story. Dark Matter has the breathless, pacey feel of a movie (an adaptation of the novel is planned)… I’d rate it highly along Lee Child’s work, with a twist of Michael Crichton and Andy Weir. It’s just the sort of book I like to read!

All of this is wrapped up in crisp, tight prose that was a joy to read – it definitely propelled me through the story and made Dark Matter a brisk, enjoyable read! The strong characterisation throughout, and toward the end as the mystery unravels, was aided by the strong writing. The complex theory behind the narrative was kept in check where it could’ve easily tied itself in knots.

Overall I can say with confidence that Dark Matter proved a thrilling, engaging and absolutely enjoyable read, and definitely only the first of Blake Crouch’s work I’ll be sampling on the strength of the effort!