What You Can Get Away With » Reviews

I’ve had this book sitting on a shelf for ages since someone gave it to me with the recommendation that I might like it. So, when the TV adaptation of the series began and got great reviews I decided it was time to finally give it a go, because as I don’t have Sky Atlantic it’ll be sometime before I get to see it and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

And now I regret having left it on the shelf for so long because it’s a truly great book. More discussion follows, but there will be plenty of spoilers so don’t read further if you want to remain pure.

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Only time for a quick review of this one, the final book in Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which I found a bit disappointing. The series as a whole has been pretty interesting, but has suffered from a certain amount of narrative sprawl, as sub-plots spawn sub-plots, which makes it somewhat to pick up the threads again at the start of each book. This is the last book in the series, but it feels more like it ends at a convenient point rather than reaches a climax – maybe he’s leaving it open for a series of sequels – and I was left with a feeling of ‘oh, is that it?’ at the end.

That’s not to say there aren’t some fun and interesting bits on the way – and, if nothing else, he’s created a fascinating universe in this series – but the whole seems somewhat less than the sum of the parts and I found myself wishing he’d wrenched more out of the scenario and the questions left unanswered at the end. Some of which was exacerbated even more by reading some of his initial notes and ideas for the series, of course.

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Back in the 90s, I can recall reading a review of one of the novels in Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series and thinking that it sounded like an interesting read. Over the years, I’ve seen copies of different books in the series in various shops and thought ‘ah yes, one day I’ll find the first one and start reading that’. Of course, since then, the books have drifted out of print and sightings have become rarer and rarer, but someone out there has clearly been thinking of people like me, as they’ve now returned.

In fact, they’ve returned bigger than before – what was originally an eight book series, cut down from a planned nine, has now returned as a reworked and re-edited series that’s planned to contain a grand total of twenty books. From what I understand, this isn’t a doubling of the original series, more releasing what were originally doorstep-sized novels split into two with some new material added. Son of Heaven is the first of these, and I understand that it’s almost entirely new material, created to serve as a prequel and a curtain-raiser for the larger story that is to follow.

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Cory Doctorow is one of those writers I’ve heard a lot about, but have never got around to reading (apart from ‘Unwirer‘, his collaboration with Charles Stross) so it was interesting to finally get the chance to sit down Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom and see what it was that people are talking about.

And for once, the talk seems to be justified as it’s a very interesting read. Trying to depict the culture of a post-scarcity human civilization is something that many writers have attempted, but this is a refreshingly different approach. It’s not a story of an entire civilization under threat, or someone discovering information that rocks society to its knees, just an interesting tale of people going about their lives in the shadow of Disney World, and how you protect the past in a society with a seemingly permanent finger on the fast-forward button. By concentrating on that story, Doctorow gets to explore some quite interesting questions on the margin of the story as well, especially the question of what happens to your personality in an effectively immortal society where the standard response to health problems is to restore from a backup?

An engaging read, and I’m glad I’ve got some more Doctorow sitting on the Kindle waiting to be read.

Technically, it’s only half a new book as some of the stories in this collection are ones I’ve read before. Of course, they’re Stross short stories, which means they’re always worth reading again to find something new buried deep within them.

The standard’s generally very high – though I’d agree with the author’s own assessment that ‘Trunk and Disorderly’ doesn’t quite work – and many of these stories contain more original and interesting ideas than most novels get into a much longer length. It’s also a good illustration of Stross’ versatility as a writer and his willingness to experiment with style and subject matter. Be it combining entomology and eschatology on a flat Earth in ‘Missile Gap‘, producing a humorous perspective on just what sort of contact SETI might generate in ‘MAXOs’ or producing a head-spinning interpretation of time travel in ‘Palimpsest’, Stross isn’t afraid to take risks and do something new, and it’s the efforts of writers like him that keep sf fresh and away from ploughing the same old furrows again and again. Recommended, even if you’ve read some of them already.

There’s a slightly convoluted story that explains how I came to read this book, though not quite as convoluted as the story in the book itself. Ian Hocking originally wrote this book and self-published it a few years ago, then – despite good reviews – gave up on his writing career in the face of poor sales. Then recently, he decided to make this book available on Kindle for the rather bargain price of 70p and Ken MacLeod – who’d reviewed and enjoyed it when it was originally published – wrote a post about it, which tempted me to buy it.

And with all that introduction out of the way, what’s the book itself like?

Not too bad, really – it’s an interesting little technothriller, and manages to balance both halves of that description. The technology that drives the plot is interesting and well-depicted, while the thriller element is competently handled and compellingly page-turning at the right points. There are some flaws in it, but I’ve read professionally published works with much bigger flaws in it than this, and none detract seriously from enjoying it.

All in all, well worth more than 70p, but as that’s all it costs I’d recommend buying a copy if you’ve got a Kindle. My only real gripe is with the cover and the review quote selected – surely for a book called Déjà Vu ‘You’ve never read anything like this before’ should be suffixed with ‘(though you might have a vague memory of having read it before at some time)’?

The concluding part of the story McAuley began in The Quiet War, Gardens Of The Sun is a Solar System-spanning tale of politics and genetics. It picks up all the plot threads and characters from the first novel and then follows them over several years as the repercussions of the Quiet War play out on the personal and societal level.

It’s not one to pick up if you haven’t read and enjoyed The Quiet War, as you’ll likely get completely lost in the number of different characters and settings, especially as many of the sub-plots don’t interact with each other until the conclusion. McAuley’s created an interesting future history, where Greater Brazil, the Pacific Community and the European Union are the main powers on a post-catastrophic Earth and posthuman Outers spread through various niches of the Solar System, but I felt sometimes that he was trying to tell a story across too vast a canvas. The obvious comparison is with Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and while that did move about the different planets and moons – especially in Blue Mars – the focus always remained on the key Martian story. Here, the story jumps about between the different characters and locations and all seem to jostle for prominence and importance.

It’s a decent read, but the lack of focus weakens it for me, though the ideas inside it are very interesting.

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The final book – for now, at least – in Lovegrove’s Age Of… series, The Age Of Odin has been the most enjoyable of them to read. Possible spoilers for all three books in the series ahead, so don’t click on read more if you want to avoid them.

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My book-reading pace has slowed down a lot over the last few weeks for various reasons, and are likely to remain sluggish for the next few weeks with the growing pressure of elections. Still, I have been able to finish off the next part of my attempts to widen my knowledge of world history by completing Roberts’ short History of China.

For someone like me who knows very little of Chinese history, especially before the twentieth century, it’s a useful introduction. Obviously, given the size of the book (about 300 pages) and the scale of Chinese history, it’s only a skimming of the surface and can only deal with the broadest historical trends. However, Roberts is good at using his words sparingly and effectively to get the important points across. The blizzard of unfamiliar names and places can sometimes be a bit disconcerting and Roberts doesn’t really succeed in depicting the huge scale on which the history is written, but as an introduction and a base for further reading on more specialised areas in the future, it’s very good.

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Continuing my attempts to broaden my historical knowledge, I’ve progressed from Sumer to Babylon and Gwendolyn Leick’s interesting introduction. It’s only a short book – about 160 pages – but provides an interesting overview of Babylonian history and society, and is enough to whet the appetite of the reader for more information about a people who in some ways lived lives that were very close to our own, but in others had a radically different way of looking at the world.

Leick’s good at just presenting the facts – or the best interpretation of the few facts that are available in some cases – without over-sensationalising the issues. She mentions some of the more outlandish theories and statements that have been made for completeness’ sake, but doesn’t let her overview roam off into too much speculation. Overall, it’s a useful scratching away of the surface that reveals how much more there is to know, and I may return to other books about Babylon in the future.

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