Posts Tagged ‘Charles Stross’


Charles Stross

“A princess is the larval reproductive host in the life cycle of a parasitic hereditary dictatorship.”

— “Kurt Douglas” in Charles Stross’s terrific new novel, Dark State

(review coming shortly)


(The Delirium Brief, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 381 pp., $25.99)

After the last two Laundry Files novels, I thought the series was floundering. I was wrong.

The previous two books in this genre bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) series, The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks, marked a fairly sharp break from the five previous books in the series (not counting novellas and story collections), in that the primary narrator changed, and with it came a change of tone. The characteristic dark humor of the sardonic narrator, “applied computational demonologist” Bob Howard, was largely though not entirely absent, as was much of the pointed political and social commentary that marked the previous books in the series.

In The Delirium Brief, Bob Howard is back as the first-person primary narrator, and with him some of the humor. (There are also third-person passages from the p.o.v. of other characters.)  The tale is so dark, though, that the humor is somewhat muted. But it’s there nonetheless, as is the pointed political/social commentary, which was largely absent from the previous two books. At one point early in The Delirium Brief, Stross devotes nearly a full page to a wonderfully precise description of how privatization of public services screws the public, which is reminiscent of his description of how the banks screw the public in his very funny The Rhesus Chart.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plot of The Delirium Brief is so dependent on back story, so dependent on the reader understanding the references to events and characters from the previous books in the series, that The Delirium Chart does not work as a stand-alone novel.

I’ve read all of the previous Laundry Files books, plus much of the subsidiary material, and I had trouble remembering some of the essential references. It doesn’t help that the novels have been spread out over more than a decade, and that I’ve read at least 500 other sci-fi novels since the first Laundry Files book, The Atrocity Archives, came out in 2004, but still….. The upshot is that only readers fresh to the series who read all of the books in a fairly short period, or readers willing to reread the previous ones, will fully appreciate this very dark tale that leaves the reader hanging, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

And damn it! I want it now!

Recommended with the above provisos.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a nonfiction book skewering Christianity, a translation of a nonfiction anarchist history book, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


The Rise and Fall of Dodo front cover

(The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow, 2017, 752 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Well, from Stephenson, this is something completely unexpected and different: a light, comic, genre-bending (sci-fi & fantasy) novel that mixes quantum physics with computer science, magic, witchcraft, time travel, and parallel universes. If this sounds more than a bit like the set-up of Charles Stross’s “Laundry” novels, it is. 

Another similarity is that the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  work for super-secret government agencies dealing with the occult. There are, however, major differences between the Stross and Stephenson/Gallard novels. One is that the “Laundry” stories feature first-person narration from a single point of view, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has first-person narration from eight p.ov. characters (four male, four female), and the story is told via journal entries, memos, historical documents, transcripted conversations, and e-mail exchanges. This sounds like it could be a mess, but it’s not: the story is quite easy to follow, which given the narrative complexity is no mean feat.

All of the characters are well drawn, with distinctive behaviors, physical appearance, dress, speech patterns, writing styles, and personality quirks. Those characters range from the very sympathetic (Melisande, the primary character, and Tristan, the primary male character), to the utterly loathsome (Blevins, an abusive, puffed up hypocrite).

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a time-lock device: we learn from Melisande’s first journal entry that something has gone horribly wrong, and she’ll be stranded in 1851 unless she’s rescued within a few weeks.

From there, the story unwinds detailing the development of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) from its humble beginnings with Tristan, who works for the Department of Defense, recruiting Melisande, an ancient language expert, to work on a nascent time travel project. Following that, D.O.D.O mushrooms, with Tristan and Melisande quickly recruiting Frank, a physicist working in the area of (what else?) quantum physics, who creates a time travel machine in which witches can practice magic and send people back in time.

Shortly, the DOD begins using the time machine to alter the past, and shortly after that the DOD official overseeing the project, General Frink, appoints a slimy, incompetent crony as its administrator in place of the competent Tristan. From there, several disasters ensue, ending with the time-lock situation (Melisande stranded in 1851) described at the beginning of the book.

There’s no point in detailing the plot further, except to say that it makes sense as much as any time travel plot can make sense (ultimately, they don’t — they’re inescapably paradoxical). So, time travel is one of the book’s two “gimmes”; the other is the existence of magic and witchcraft.

One very attractive feature of the book is that it has many genuinely funny moments, including a wonderful three-page passage on the reactions of surveillance personnel forced to watch the virtually nonstop sexual antics of two of the characters. This is the high, or at least the funniest, point in the interplay between the male and female characters, which is both amusing and believable throughout the book.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it’s that hierarchical institutions are inherently dangerous, in part because incompetents in command positions can and do make terrible decisions, overriding the concerns of the competent people beneath them.

Other than that, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has no redeeming social value other than being for the most part — it’s a bit on the long side — highly entertaining.

That’s more than enough to justify picking it up.

Recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


Empire Games cover(Empire Games, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 331 pp. $25.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

At long last, Charles Stross has produced another book in the “Merchant Princes” universe, a series which is basically near-future sci-fi in alternative-timelines guise. Empire Games is the first book in a new trilogy, with the second and third books scheduled for January 2018 and January 2019 respectively

Unfortunately, the book prior to Empire Games, The Trade of Queens, which concluded the original series, appeared in 2010, so even for those who read that series the characters and plot lines will likely have become hazy over time. I read the original series when it came out, and since then have started probably 500 or 600  sci-fi novels and finished maybe a third of them (so many books, so little time). If the characters and events from the earlier series were fresher in mind, I’d almost certainly have enjoyed Empire Games more than I did. Throughout the book, I found myself muttering, “now who exactly is that and what’s the back story here?”

Stross does, however, provide enough information within Empire Games so that a reader unfamiliar with the original series can follow the book, if not fully enjoy it.

As for the plot, backdrop and characters, Empire Games starts in 2020 in a parallel timeline to our own, in which renegade members of a ruling elite/criminal syndicate nuked the White House in 2003, and were in turn, along with the rest of their society, nuked back to the Stone Age by President Rumsfeld.

The resulting American society is similar to the present-day USA, but under the thumb of an even more oppressive security state which utilizes nearly all-pervasive surveillance, and in which the government seems to be a theocracy, with the fundies, Mormons, and (yes!) Scientologists embedded in the power structure.

In this horrid situation, a branch of the DHS makes an offer she can’t refuse to Rita Douglas, the (unavoidably abandoned) daughter of Miriam Burgeson, a minister in a democratic government in a third timeline, that is in arms race with the reactionary, monarchist French Empire, and that is conducting a crash technological/industrial revolution due to terror that the paranoid, violence-prone “Americans are coming.” This leads to the reason, in part, why the DHS forcibly recruited Rita — to act as a spy on her mother’s government and society.

This is a grossly inadequate summary of Empire Games, but there are six previous books in this “universe” that provide the necessary back story, and it’s impossible to summarize them in a few hundred words (even if I remembered them more clearly).

That said, there’s a lot to like about Empire Games, starting with the dedication: “For Iain M. Banks, who painted a picture of a better way.” Other positive aspects include Stross’s (as always) well drawn characters, intricate plot, and his accurate portrayal of the ruthlessness of the American government. The book even has an intriguing and unexpected twist right at the end.

One inadvertently funny facet of the book is that several of its characters live in the Phoenix suburbs, and Stross mentions with apparent horror a temperature of “almost a hundred Fahrenheit outside.” I couldn’t help but smile when I read that. In Arizona, we have a term for temperatures of “almost a hundred Fahrenheit”: “Winter.” (Here in Tucson, the forecast is for a high of 88 on Friday [Feb. 10], and it’ll quite possibly hit the mid-90s in Phoenix on that same day.)

The only real complaint I have about Empire Games is that an explanatory prologue would have been a huge help in comprehending and fully enjoying a book so far separated from its predecessors.

Highly recommended, nonetheless. But read the previous six “Merchant Princes” books first.

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(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover


Sharp and Pointed has been around for just over three years, and we’ve put up just over 1,000 posts —  this  is number 1,001 — in 37 categories. Coincidentally, we reached 30,000 hits yesterday.

Science fiction is probably our most popular category, and we’ve put up nearly 100 sci-fi posts. Here, in no particular order, are those we consider the best.

This is the first of our first-1,000 “best of” posts. We’ll shortly be putting up other “best ofs” in several other categories, including Addictions, Anarchism, Atheism, Economics, Humor, Interviews, Music, Politics, Religion, Science, and Skepticism.


Nightmare(The Nightmare Stacks, by Charles Stross. New York, Ace, 2016, 385 pp., $27.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

It’s always sad to see one of your favorite series running out of steam, but that’s what seems to be happening with Stross’s “Laundry Files” novels (regarding “applied computational demonology” — the summoning of “tentacled Lovecraftian horrors,” either intentionally or unintentionally, via mathematics or computation) .

This first became apparent with the last novel in the series, The Annihilation Score,  in which Stross ditched his longtime central character, the sardonic, very funny, perpetually harassed Bob Howard, in favor of Bob’s believably drawn and sympathetic, but humor-devoid wife, Mo. Why? Apparently just to do something different. He apparently felt that he’d run out the string with the Howard character, and would, after five very successful novels, try another central character.

Here, he’s turned to yet another central character, Alex one of the PHANGs (Post Human vampires infected with other-dimensional parasites)  formerly at the heart of an investment bank and now a “Laundry” employee, introduced in probably the best “Laundry” novel, The Rhesus Chart. Alex is a 24-year-old math-nerd virgin, and the character provides fertile ground for Stross’s dark humor. The description of Alex’s family get-together with his other-dimensional girlfriend, his kid sister, and her trans lover is cringe-inducing but extremely funny. As is a lot of the other material in the book. (At one point, Stross compares wearing a tie with castration.)

All of these very entertaining diversions aside, it’s difficult to see where Stross can go with this series after The Nightmare Stacks. He killed off one of his most intriguing secondary characters in The Rhesus Chart, whose tense relationship with Howard was one of the driving forces of the series. And in the last novel, The Annihilation Score, he seemed to have nowhere to go but to amp up the weirdness with everyday characters receiving super-hero powers.

Here, he’s ramped it up even more with a full-blown, and very lengthily described, alien invasion from another dimension.

It’s hard to see where he can go after this. I’ll read the next novel, yes–I’ve read the first seven–but I’m not especially looking forward to it.

Recommended only for “Laundry Files” completists.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


We started this blog in July 2013. Since then, we’ve been posting almost daily.

When considering the popularity of the posts, one thing stands out:  in all but a few cases, popularity declines over time.

As well, the readership of this blog has expanded gradually over time, so most readers have never seen what we consider many of our best posts.

So, over the next week or two we’ll put up lists of our best posts from 2014 and 2015 in the categories of atheism, religion, anarchism, humor, politics, music, science fiction, science, skepticism, book and movie reviews, writing, language use, and economics.

We’ve already put up the best posts of 2013 and the best religion and atheism posts of 2014. Because there were considerably more posts in 2014 and 2015 than in 2013, we’ll be putting up several posts for those years divided by category. Here’s the second of them, the best 2014 posts on science, skepticism, and science fiction. We hope you  enjoy them.

Science

Skepticism

Science Fiction