I ordered a bunch of scifi books to read last week, because the gaming front has been slow (mostly waiting for the new Thief in late February) and I felt like it. I haven’t exactly been plowing through bestsellers in the last ten years, so it is going to take me awhile to discover who among the current crop is good and who isn’t. That is always the most frustrating part of reading books for me – the uncertain quality of authors I haven’t read. Will the experience be worth the three-four hours it takes me to devour a novel? Reading journal articles is a little more profitable in that light, because they’re shorter and I can read the beginning and the end near-simultaneously without feeling cheated.
Most of the books have arrived already. I picked them by reading lists of ‘best in 2013’. I read three this weekend: The Frozen Sky by Jeff Carlson, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. They are three very different books, but because I read them more or less at the same time I can’t help but compare them against one another.
The Frozen Sky is a first contact story set on Europa. It is a hard scifi thriller, meaning there are more ideas and action than character. All we really learn about the protagonist is that she is determined, which goes without saying. Of the first contact genre, it is of the ‘can we talk to them meaningfully’ type. So I didn’t find it sufficiently original, though it was written competently. The challenge with hard scifi is linking it to a actual rather than puppet protagonist.
Ancillary Justice was more interesting. It is about a troopship AI that is reduced to inhabiting just one of its many previously simultaneously operating parts – a ‘corpse soldier’ or ancillary – after the ship and all the rest of its ancillaries are destroyed. The motivation is revenge – seeking out those who destroyed the ship. Lots of discussion of ethics. Also interesting was the treatment of gender. The ruthless yet principled and music-loving AI is very bad at discerning gender, and refers to everyone as ‘she’, which can make for some frustrating but enjoyable reading. An original book, I think, with the author worth sampling again.
Brilliance was light sci-fi. Its plot is basically the X-men with a helping of Heroes. In the early eighties one in a hundred babies are born ‘brilliant’ – having some kind of advanced cognitive ability. The government attempts to control the most powerful of these with NSA-like agencies, killing some and indoctrinating the rest from an early age. The protagonist is one of these ‘abnorms’, able to see patterns, especially body gestures, with uncanny accuracy. He works for the government but – unfortunately in a predictable way – finds himself having problems holding to that allegiance. I thought this was the best written and most enjoyable of the three books – it had a steady flow to it – but in many ways the least original and most predictable. Sakey has written some other things, which might be better.
I’ll write some more about the other books as I have time. I’m working on a very difficult article this semester, one I’m not sure is even going to get finished, and that among other problems has occupied my thoughts lately.