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: 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!

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.