Braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Since its publication in 1992, this book has come to be considered a modern classic. I remember Tim reading it around 12 years ago and loving it – indeed, he still remembers it in remarkable detail. So in my ongoing science-fiction education, this seemed like a natural step.

This book has a fascinating setting that, though complex enough to be slowly revealed over 470 pages, is at heart simple enough to not require masses of exposition at the start. Instead, Stephenson opens with an action-packed sequence that introduces our main character – the aptly named Hiro Protagonist – and his foil, YT.

Hiro is a freelance hacker. His home is a storage unit that he shares with an up-and-coming rock star, a cramped situation that suits him fine because he spends most of his time in the Metaverse anyway – an alternative space that anyone with virtual-reality goggles and what is effectively an Internet connection by another name can plug into. In the Metaverse, your avatar can own property, socialise and explore in the vast space created many years ago by Da5id – superstar hacker and old friend of Hiro’s. In the Metaverse, Hiro is a sword-fighting expert, but in Reality (always written with a capital R) he delivers pizza to pay the bills.

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Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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We miss so much when the assumptions we attach to words are all we snatch

occupy-me-by-tricia-sullivanOccupy Me
by Tricia Sullivan

This is a very strange genre-crossing mindbender of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though at times I had no idea what was going on.

The plot is difficult to explain. The tale is narrated by Pearl, who wakes up in a fridge in a junkyard with little knowledge of who she is, or indeed what. She has the appearance of a middle-aged tall muscular black woman, but she also has wings in a higher dimension and a strength far beyond human. She might be an angel. In alternate chapters she directly addresses a Dr Kisi Sorle, whose story initially seems to be separate from hers, though they inevitably come together.

Dr Sorle has been experiencing blackouts, after one of which he finds himself in possession of a briefcase. When he arrives at work, where he provides end-of-life care for a billionaire businessman Austen Stevens, whose corporation destroyed his home country, he finds his body taken over again, but this time he remains aware of the other man controlling him. The controlling entity opens the briefcase and the dying Stevens disappears inside it.

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The numbness didn’t happen all at once

monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter
by Michelle Pretorius

My knowledge of the history of South Africa is a little sketchy, or at least it was before reading this book. But it’s so much more than a historical novel. This is genre-bending fare, combining crime, science fiction, social and political history – and it works.

The book opens with the discovery of a murder in a small town called Unie in 2010. The head of the police investigation, Sergeant Johannes Mathebe, is a straight player and he’s not getting on well with his recently appointed assistant Constable Alet Berg. She drinks, she swears and she resents being in this small town – a punishment for having an affair with one of the senior officers during her training.

The next chapter opens in 1901, in the midst of the Boer War. British troops are clearing out the Dutch farms, taking the people they find – mostly women and children – to concentration camps. A young woman called Anna is picked out from the Bloemfontein camp for something else, something worse, something that will echo through the next 109 years in its awfulness.

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We who had known the shifting sky as our ceiling

man_i_became_webThe Man I Became
by Peter Verhelst
translated from Dutch by David Colmer

How do you approach a book narrated by a gorilla? Or, at least, a character who started life as a gorilla? Honestly, if I hadn’t received this book as part of my Peirene subscription, based on the synopsis I would not have picked it up. And I would have missed out.

This novella treads a line between science fiction and fairy tale – the dark kind of fairy tale, not light and fluffy Disney fare. The result is an odd allegory of…what, exactly? A few different things, I think, and no doubt many more things than I picked up on.

Our narrator was a gorilla snatched from the jungle, along with most of his family, and taken by boat to “the New World” to be turned into a human. So far, so clearly related to slavery, right down to the overcrowded boat and casual lack of consideration for the gorillas’ lives.

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Cornwall reads in brief

Yes, I’ve been on holiday again. This time a long weekend in Cornwall. It wasn’t what most people might consider beach weather, but that just provided an excuse to stay indoors reading while looking out at the sea and listening to the waves crash. (It’s a comforting noise, which possibly doesn’t make any sense.)

It was a lovely holiday with old friends in a place we have visited many times, so it’s like a home from home. I didn’t actually have my nose in a book the whole time – there were beach/clifftop walks, games to play, crosswords to complete, a whole lot of tasty food to eat and even (in my case very briefly because brrr) swimming in the sea.

porthcothan-beach

But I did get a lot of reading done too.

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Drowned out by the sounds of the mundane world

The Long EarthThe Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I actually have a lot of thoughts about this book, but going into most of them would require revealing more about this book’s premise than I want to in this review. So I’m going to keep this (fairly) short and highly recommend that you read the book, then maybe we can do spoilers in the comments!

The set-up of the book is that one day children suddenly start disappearing all over the world – and then hours later they reappear telling the fantastic story that they had “stepped” to another Earth, a parallel world that seems to be identical except that there are no signs of humans or human civilisation there. They were able to step thanks to eccentric scientist Willis Linsay posting online the details of how to build your own stepper device. And it turns out that there isn’t just one parallel Earth; there are hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe an infinite number, each subtly different but still clearly Earth.

“The prairie was flat, green, rich, with scattered stands of oaks. The sky above was blue as generally advertised. On the horizon there was movement, like the shadow of a cloud: a vast herd of animals on the move. There was a kind of sigh, a breathing-out. An observer standing close enough might have felt a whisper of breeze on the skin.”

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My eyes are just a closed-circuit camera without film in it

book of strange new thingsThe Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber

I forget whose review it was that made me seek out this book (possibly Michael Kindness on Books on the Nightstand?) but if it was you, thank you. I really loved this book and I’m not sure I would have picked it up without a push.

Despite his towering reputation, this is the first Michel Faber book I’ve read (though with this strong a start, I certainly don’t intend for it to be the last). But it wasn’t lack of previous fandom that risked putting me off so much as the fact that the central character is a vicar. And not just a vicar, but a vicar who goes off to another planet as a missionary to spread Christianity.

Now, it’s not that I hate vicars on principle. Growing up, our vicar was a genuine family friend and I’ve met many other vicars who seem like decent sorts. They effectively dedicate their lives to supporting other people, after all. And while I’m an atheist who occasionally has doubts and veers back towards agnosticism but is categorically against a lot of what organised religion does and says, I do see that it can have positive effects and do positive things sometimes. But I am really not a fan of evangelising, particularly when it goes hand-in-hand with colonialism (Chinua Achebe may have something to do with this) so this book was a risky manoeuvre for me. One that paid off.

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Monsters are always lonely

gardens of the sunGardens of the Sun
by Paul McAuley

This is a sequel to The Quiet War, a space opera that Tim encouraged me to read last summer. Then a few months later he started bugging me to read the sequel, so he could discuss the pair without accidentally spoiling the plot for me, because he couldn’t entirely remember which events happened in which book! It’s actually a trilogy, but neither of us has read part three yet. My review does contain spoilers for The Quiet War, because this book is very much an immediate continuation of events in that book.

I actually preferred this to the first book, as I felt the politics and philosophical debates were more varied, with more views and nuances depicted. Naturally the themes are largely the same: genetic modification; human responsibility for our planet and our fellow man; the endless possibilities of science and whether we should always pursue every avenue; diplomacy; whether good and evil are inherent or a product of circumstances and therefore variable; freedom; love, family and parenting. Just a few small things then!

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Too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core

William Gibson_1984_NeuromancerNeuromancer
by William Gibson

I read this book because I had arranged to take Tim to an evening with William Gibson arranged by Toppings in Bath and, having read nothing by Gibson myself, thought I might as well start with his first and most famous novel, which is 30 years old this year. It was…educational?

Gibson’s language is wonderful, both lyrical and humorous and I often felt I could visualise scenes really clearly. However, the same can’t be said for clarity of plot. Through a lot of this book I felt that I didn’t know what was happening. After I had finished it and turned to the Internet for a little guidance, it turned out I had misunderstood some early scenes and that had thrown me, but actually I had followed the majority of the action. I just somehow didn’t feel that I had.

“Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the borders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.”

The story follows Case, formerly a successful hacker in the Matrix, a kind of virtual reality, a “cyberspace” where computer data is visualised in various ways, from a pleasant beach scene to a complex maze. But at some point (before the novel begins? this bit I’m still not clear on) Case was caught stealing from an employer and a terrible punishment was wrought – a modification to his nervous system that left him unable to access the Matrix. So instead he wanders the back streets of Chiba City in Japan searching for a black market cure.

He is saved by a woman called Molly, a samurai who recruits him for a shadowy employer called Armitage, who offers to cure Case in return for a very big, dangerous job in cyberspace. He and Molly work together for Armitage but also begin to try to unravel exactly who Armitage is and what this job really is.

It’s clear from the start that this book was a major influence on the language of computing, computer games and SF films. But what’s interesting – and also no doubt part of why I got so confused about what was happening at times – is that there was a lot of terminology that’s now familiar to us all but in this book it’s not quite describing what I initially thought it was. For instance, “virtual reality” and “hacking” are words that I have clear preconceptions of but Gibson’s interpretation is wider and requires a bit of a brain shift.

Incidentally, at the Gibson talk we went to last week, he said that the only thing he felt he could predict about the future is that the division between reality and virtual reality will blur to the point that children born today won’t understand why us old folk insist on a distinction between the two. It’s clear that Gibson already thought that way when he was writing Neuromancer and it explains a lot about one of my confusions, which was that I wasn’t always sure whether a scene was happening in reality or virtual reality. But apparently the characters don’t think that way, so of course it wasn’t always distinct!

Plot confusion aside, I did enjoy this book. There are plenty of interesting, flawed characters, though none that you really get inside the head of psychologically speaking. Molly is pretty kickass, with inscrutable motivations, which I found refreshing. In fact, the whole novel felt very modern, certainly not 30 years old. I’m not sure if that’s the language or great foresight on Gibson’s part or if he’s actually managed to create something here that’s somehow timeless.

It’s also a very interesting look at addiction. Case gets physical pleasure from plugging himself into the Matrix and at the start of the novel is strung out on drugs in his attempt to achieve an equivalent high. When Armitage has Case cured of his nervous system damage, he also has Case’s pancreas altered so that no drug will have any effect on him. Initially Case is upset by this and showing signs of withdrawal, but once he gets back to cyberspace he no longer misses the drugs.

“The high wore away, the chromed skeleton corroding hourly, flesh growing solid, the drug-flesh replaced with the meat of his life. He couldn’t think. He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.”

And despite my confusion at the time, I think the start of the novel in Chiba City is a very visceral, believable depiction of poor neighbourhoods rife with prostitution, drug-taking and other crime. It’s a dark, depressing place where everyone (especially Chase) is paranoid, but not everyone is miserable. In fact, the novel as a whole has great sense of place in all its various locations, perhaps rooted in Gibson’s early travel around the globe before he settled in Vancouver.

I just wish I’d known at any point what was actually happening.

First published 1984 by Victor Gollancz.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.