Saturday, 22 March 2014

Dust by Hugh Howey - Book Review

This is the third book in the Silo trilogy, following 'Wool' and then 'Shift'. In many ways though, it is more of a direct sequel to Wool, as Shift is -mostly anyway - a prequel. However don't try reading Wool and then Dust, there are several chapters of Shift that move the story along.

*spoilers for the first two books*

Dust starts off after Juliette has returned to her Silo, the only person ever to come back alive after being sent out to Clean. She comes back with stories of other Silos, and has a crazy plan to dig to the (almost empty) neighbouring silo. She has been elected Mayor, but not many people trust in her. Meanwhile, in Silo One Donald continues impersonating Thurman while trying to help Juliette, and also trying to keep his newly awakened sister a secret.

To me, this is the weakest of the three books in the trilogy. Book One was extremely novel, an introduction to a fascinating world. Book Two explored how the world of the silos came about and is really gripping stuff. Book Three though was a bit flat, there were no big surprises or new problems to overcome. That said, the ending is good, and fitting of the overall series as a hole. I'd give it 7/10.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds - book review

Alastair Reynolds is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, having really enjoyed his Revelation Space series and some of his short stories. He's written quite a few standalone novels too, but for some reason decided to go for book one in his new series this time (quite possibly because I bought it on a 99p deal last summer and it's been sat in my Kindle library ever since).

While Revelation Space was set in the undetermined future (1000 years from now maybe?), and spans the galaxy with lots of weird factions of humanity and really strange tech, Blue Remembered Earth is set only about 150 years in the future. We've expanded out from Earth, but only to the Moon, Mars and a few other moons and asteroids. While there have been various scientific advances as you'd expect, there's no faster than light travel (or even near light travel) or anything else too exotic, and humans for the most part are similar to how they are today. The main advances seem to have been in some kind of bio-neural interfaces which, among other things, allow you to 'ching' across vast distances, effectively sending either a virtual representation of yourself, or your mind can be transferred temporarily into a robot (a golem) or even another human being - with their permission of course. There's also the 'Mechanism', basically an AI type surveillance and police system that literally stops you from committing a crime...

The story centers around two siblings, Geoffrey and Sunday who are members of the Akinya clan, and grandchildren of Eunice Akinya, matriarch of the family and founder of a solar system wide dynasty and business empire. As the book opens, Eunice has just died and a strange note in her will sends Geoffrey and Sunday on a kind of treasure hunt from Earth, to the Moon, to Mars...

I liked this book. Like all of Alastair Reynolds books I've read so far it has a slow start, and things don't really start happening until later on, but it is book one in the series. The whole treasure hunt thing starts to get a bit tedious eventually, but the world building is the real star, and this allows you to really build up a picture of the way things are in the 22nd century. About three quarters of the way through things really get going, and before the end you can't wait for book two, 'On a Steel Breeze'. The book does work as a standalone novel too though.

Particular credit should be given for Reynolds making Africa the dominant economic power. This is very plausible 100-200 years in the future. It may end up being the last major area of the world to become developed, but it could well be building to its height at just the right time to take advantage of space. It would be nice to think so anyway, as it hasn't had much look so far in its recent history.

Overall a great book, 9/10.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Podcasts: The Infinite Monkey Cage

I just love it when I discover something new whether it is a new author, a new website, new game or something else to really ignite my interest. Now I've really enjoyed listening to podcasts for a few years now, on and off. I find it much easier to listen to them than I do to audiobook - probably because when I'm listening I'm doing something else at the same time, like driving, painting the spare room, doing the dishes... Like a typical man I'm rather rubbish at multi-tasking and if I'm concentrating on that other thing, I'll lose the narrative thread of an audiobook, whereas a podcast is lighter and easier to follow.

I've been aware of The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast for a while now, being a fan of Brian Cox's TV series. Up until now I've never listened to it before but earlier this week was looking for something a bit more real and useful than science fiction or board gaming podcasts so thought I'd give it a go. It is an approx 30 minute podcast taking an irreverent look at science, co-hosted by physicist and presenter Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince. There's usually a couple of guests and a studio audience and each episode is on a particular topic. It's very informative and funny at the same time.

So far I've listened to episodes on Space Tourism and Popular Science as well as a special episode where they answer listeners questions. The great thing is there's about 50 episodes in total going back about 5 years now, all available to download from the BBC, and I've heard there's a new series starting in the next couple of months. I'm thinking I'll have got through a lot of the back catalogue before then...

For more details on the show and to download episodes, go here -

Friday, 7 March 2014

2013 Books Read - Part 2

Probably my all time favourite author is Raymond E. Feist. He is an epic fantasy author whose first book 'Magician' was published in 1982 and sold millions of copies since. Since then he has written over twenty books which follow on from Magician. I've been reading him since about 1993 when I was 13, always reading his new book as soon as it came out. Until a couple of years ago when I paused for a bit. The books were getting shorter and shorter, hardly complete books just small parts of a longer story. Finally though, he's finished and so I read his final trilogy in 2013. They were A Kingdom Besieged, A Crown Imperilled and finally Magician's End. The first two were good, the last one was amazing, an action packed and yet touching finale to a very long running series.

In June I went on holiday for a week to a rural cottage in Shropshire, and wanted to take something suitable. In the end I plumped for 'Waystation' by Clifford D Simak. Simak was golden age science fiction writer, who was famous for writing 'pastoral sf', a combination of galaxy spanning science ficiton, and the quiet pastoralism of backwoods America. Really great book.

One of the things that makes a good year - reading wise anyway - is discovering a new favourite author. In fact I probably discovered several (I covered Hugh Howey in part one), but foremost among them is probably Alastair Reynolds, writer of hard SF, space opera style books. I'd tried his 'Revelation Space' novel in audiobook format, but gave up as I wasn't getting to listen often enough. Normally that's it, I don't go back, but when the book came up cheap on Kindle, I bought it and tried again. It took a while to get going but eventually I loved it. After that, later in the year came books two and three in the Revelation Space series, Redemption Ark & Absolution Gap. Since then, I've read two more books of his, with more to be read soon.

Talking of books I had previously started, many many years ago I tried reading 'Assassin's Apprentice' by Robin Hobb. I didn't get very far, and put it down (I was quite picky then). Well last year I picked it up again and really enjoyed it this time.

2013 was a year of reading mostly fiction, and the majority of that being science fiction. But I used to read a lot of non-fiction, and while I tend to not finish a lot more non-fiction these days. I did really enjoy (and finish) a couple. They were 'The Victorian Internet' by Tom Standage, a historical look at the telegraph in the 19th century, and how in many respects it was remarkably similar to the early days of the internet. It's a short but fascinating and enjoyable book. The other was 'Bang: The Complete History of the Universe by Brian May. It's a - very - short book about the universe and astronomy. A quick, easy but very interesting read.

I read several exceptionally good standalone novels this year to, by first time authors in some cases. 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline was frankly amazing. A geek's dream, it's a book about computer games, sci-fi films, books, anything retro 1980s.

Next was 'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern. A recommendation from my lovely wife, it was a beautifully written book, the kind that is all too rare.

After that was 'Redshirts' by John Scalzi. It won the Hugo Award which was controvertial but I think it really deserved it. It is a very funny book, a kind of spoof on Star Trek but actually with plot. I also read 'Old Man's War' by the same author, his first book. A light but fun military SF novel, I enjoyed this and as a rule I don't enjoy military SF.

Not long to go now - gosh I did read a lot of books last year...

Everyone's been talking about 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins for the last few years. I finally tried the first book. It was good, but it wasn't great. Definitely had a young adult feel to it, there wasn't much depth there. Interesting world building though.

'Proxima' by Stephen Baxter was a really welcome return to hard(ish)-SF. He's written a lot of quasi-historical stuff in recent years, but good space-based SF is what he's best at. I particularly like stories about colonizing and settling a new world which is what a lot of this is about.

Finally, I requested - on Google Plus - suggestions for an Indie published book I could read, as I wanted to give Indie authors a chance. I had a number of suggestions but went for 'Ships of my Fathers' by Dan Thompson, book one of the Father Chessman series. I really enjoyed it. It lacked the complexity of some other books, but had interesting, well rounded characters and an intriguing plot.