Thursday, June 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Heaven's River (Bobiverse, #4) by Dennis E. Taylor

Heaven's River is the fourth book in the Bobiverse series by Dennis E. Taylor. Bob is a self-aware machine intelligence formed from the downloaded mental state of Bob Johansson, a self-describe nerd who had the foresight to have his brain downloaded onto silicon before his very untimely death (literally while walking across the street) at the beginning of the first book, We Are Legion (We Are Bob). As the story has progressed in subsequent books, Bob has figured out to make multiple copies of himself. The rub is that there are slight differences in each copy which causes the new copies to have their own personalities. Eventually there are so many copies of Bob floating around that they inhabit a cyberspace they call the Bobiverse. Each "Bob" has their own name and personality and are essentially individual "siblings" of the original.

However, just because the Bobs are virtual doesn't mean that they can't impact "meatspace." The original Bob was an expert programmer and tinkerer and the Bobs have figured out how to control many computer systems and technologies. Bobs can operate drones and avatars in order to have physical experiences and sensations via sensors that simulate what Bob can see, smell, touch, feel, and taste.

The original Bob became the artificial intelligence of a probe sent in to far outer space to explore a signal that could signify an extraterrestrial intelligence. Many of the Bobs have exploration and munificence towards other intelligences as some of their core values and in the hundreds of years since the Bobs have been exploring they have found a few intelligent aliens, typically further behind in technological development than they are. The Bobs have generally helped the aliens as much as they can. 

One of the central features of the Bobiverse books are the references to "nerd" culture. There are many, many homages to Star Trek, especially due to the Bobiverse ethos of peaceful exploration of space and "doing no harm" to sentient species they discover in their journeys. It's not just Star Trek that the Bobiverse pokes fun at, however. There are often references to role-playing games, Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and more. It's a fun way of connecting with the reader.

The Bobiverse is close to the 24th generation of Bobs at the time of the events in Heaven's River so there are literally thousands of Bobs, and some of them are exhibiting unusual behavior. One of the central tensions of the book is how do you resolve irreconcilable differences, especially with someone who you assumed you were 90-percent-plus in agreement with due to shared DNA (or software). Some of the Bobs (called Star Fleet are promoting a version of the Prime Directive where they want all Bobs to stop interacting with alien species. It turns out they are willing to go farther than other Bobs would have expected to impose their will on other Bobs and this causes much consternation in the Bobiverse as a whole.

In Heaven's River one of the Bobs (named Denver--get it?) has gone missing and some of his fellow Bobs go looking for him. When they explore the volume of space he was last known to be in they discover a huge megastructure called a topopolis, which is basically an artificial world for an intelligent alien species called Quinlans. The topopolis is gigantic, a billion miles long along the central axis, producing several billion square miles of living surface. The aliens are sorta like large otters and the topopolis has six central tributaries of a central rover flowing in it, which is why they have named the structure Heaven's River. Bill and some other Bobfriends of his use remote control-operated virtual reality called a "manny" which allows the Bobs to interact with the Quinlans and experience everything in real time during their expedition.

Basically the story in Heaven's River is split between the developing rift among the Bobs and the search for Bender disguised as Quinlans on Heaven's River. We learn a lot about the engineering of the structure and Quinlan society. One big mystery is that the Quinlans clearly do not have advanced technology, but someone built (and maintains!) the topopolis, so who is that? The other source of narrative tension is whether Bill will find Bender before they are discovered by whomever (or whatever?) is running Heaven's River discovers that an alien intelligence has infiltrated this world it created for the Quinlans.

Although quite different from the first three Bobiverse books (and significantly longer, apparently it was originally written as two books that were combined into one) it is quite effective. Another interesting feature of the Bobiverse books has been the grappling with existential questions. Are artificial intelligences really "people"? Effectively, the Bobs are immortal, as long as they have power and raw materials to build with. (In the setting of the books 3-d printers have been invented which can replicate themselves and basically any other product one has designs for, so the limiting factor is literally heavy metals and minerals found on planets.) So, facing immortality, what should the Bobs do? What would you do if you woke up and found yourself "alive" (or at least sentient and self-aware as an artificial intelligence) a hundred years in the future, with the capacity to remain in that state forever? Overall, I would say that the Bobiverse books in general, and Heaven's River specifically combine humor, adventure and philosophy in ways that are quite compelling.

Title: Heaven's River.
Dennis E. Taylor.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 632 pages.
Publisher: Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency.
Date Published: September 24, 2020.
Date Read: June 6, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, June 17, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Network Effect (Murderbot Diaries, #5) by Martha Wells

Network Effect is the fifth entry and the first full-length novel in the wildly popular Murderbot series written by Martha Wells. It was nominated for multiple prestigious awards: Locus, Hugo, and Nebula. It recently won the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2020. In fact, it was this win that convinced me to read it. I read the first four novellas and although I thought they were mostly fun, I didn’t really understand what the ecstatic enthusiasm was about. Murderbot is a cyborg called a SecUnit who has powerful weapons and excessively violent capabilities combined with an extremely introverted (and borderline antisocial) personality. She has organic components (brain, I think) but is physically much stronger than a human or even an augmented human.

All SecUnits have a governor unit that is used to control them; it can be set to self-destruct at any time and thus SecUnits are generally compelled to do whatever their owner tells them to do. However, early in the first book Murderbot figures out how to hack its governor and becomes autonomous for the first time. The next few stories are centered around Murderbot’s search for meaning in a world where they can do what they want now, but where everyone else still thinks they are a violent, dangerous tool that can be used for nefarious means. Of course, it turns out that in the setting of the Murderbot storied there’s a large number of unscrupulous folks in a universe where capitalism has run amok and corporations have even more power and influence than they do today, while their operating principles have grown even more immoral.

My biggest problem with Murderbot in the earlier stories was that eventually it became clear that Murderbot itself didn’t care whether it lived or died as it was getting itself into incredibly dangerous situations. This was portrayed as an aspect of its dysfunctional mental and emotional state, but to me as a reader I wondered why I should care about Murderbot’s fate if it didn’t care about it either?

However by the time we get to the fifth entry in the series, Murderbot has begun to demonstrate that there are certain people and entities it cares about very much and the feelings are mutual. This made me care more about what happens to it (and the people and entities it cares about) in Network Effect.

The plot in Network Effect like in the other books, is insanely complicated. However you can really just follow along for the ride and not worry about whether the story makes sense. The more important and memorable aspects of any Murderbot story is really the vibe and emotional cadence of the book, as we experience the plot through Murderbot’s jaundiced and misanthropic “eyes.”

To me, there’s still something gimmicky about the entire Murderbot oeuvre but I do agree that’s there’s something compellingly readable about the Murderbot stories. It definitely takes substantial skill by the author to take a somewhat flimsy premise and produce stories that have become so popular and effective.

Title: Network Effect.
Martha Wells.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: May 5, 2020.
Date Read: June 14, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, June 03, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace is the sequel to the celebrated debut novelA Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. The first book was nominated for multiple prestigious awards: Locus, Hugo, Nebula ,Clarke and Goodreads. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2020.

Because of the acclaimed nature of the first book, the sequel was very much anticipated by many science fiction fans. Although I was less enamored of the first book than others, I also looked forward to reading the sequel and I was not disappointed.

The main character in the books is Mahit Dzmare, a diplomat for Lesl Station, which is a small space station located near a jump gate. The setting of the books is the Tleixcalaani Empire, which controls a vast number of planetary systems. Tleixcalaan is a galactic superpower with military, cultural, and financial hegemony. Mahit has been fascinated by all-things Tleixcalaan all her life, so her appointment as the Lesl Ambassador to Tleixcalaan is her dream job. In the first book, A Memory Called Empire, Mahit arrives on Tleixcalaan and immediately discovers that her predecessor had been murdered and finds herself in a complicated diplomatic and political maelstrom. She is helped in navigating the dangerous waters by a minor diplomatic functionary assigned to her named Three Seagrass and Three Seagrass’s friend Twelve Azalea. During the book Mahit interacts with people at the highest echelons of Tleixcalaan society, including the Emperor himself (Six Direction) and Nineteen Adze (one of a limited number of Imperial advisors who represent the Emperor and implement his wishes). Mahit uses her smarts and the efforts of her Tleixcalaan hosts to figure her way out of a complicated situation that maintains the sovereignty of Lesl Station and her own body integrity.

In the beginning of A Desolation Called Peace Mahit is back on Lesl Station and Three Seagrass is back on Tleixcalaan when news of incursions into imperial space by alien ships and a massacre of Tleixcalaan citizens on a remote industrial planet begins to roll in. Mahit is still recovering from brash decisions that she made while on Tleixcalaan and trying to re-acclimate herself to being “home” on Lesl when she is asked by Three Seagrass to go to a Tleixcalaan military vessel that is patrolling the sector of space where the aliens are active and may have received a signal from them that needs to be interpreted in order to make first contact. It’s basically an irresistible invitation to participate in a historic diplomatic first and of course Mahit says yes, although it is complicated to the unresolved status of her relationship with Three Seagrass.

The other main characters in A Desolation Called Peace are the commander of the Tleixcalaan fleet that has encountered the alien ships, Nine Hibiscus, and the 12-year-old “90%-clone” of the former Emperor, Eight Antidote.

In my opinion, one of the key failings of the first book was its focus on language (in particular poetry) and the depiction of the central political conflict as a process of sussing out the motives of the characters struggling for supremacy by parsing what they said (and left unsaid). That’s not to say that there wasn’t action in A Memory Called Empire, but the real meat of the story was often in the thoughts about the action. This “chatty” problem is mainly rectified in the sequel. I think there’s more action in A Desolation Called Peace and although there is still a fair amount of space devoted to characters thinking and talking about the action, the amount of time the book spends in character’s heads seems less prominent in the sequel.

The key themes in both books are culture, communication and compatibility. In A Desolation Called Peace the question is central to the plot because Nine Hibiscus (and Mahit and Three Seagrass) are trying to determine if it is possible to communicate with alien beings, and once they show that they can do so, how compatible they are.

Tleixcalaan culture is geared towards domination, never accommodation, but it is clear these aliens are at least as technologically sophisticated, so the question of compatibility becomes central to the plot. In the first book Mahit was the outsider treated like a barbarian by Tleixcalaan citizens while in the second book because the power differentials are undefined who will play which role in the interaction with the aliens is unclear.

In A Desolation Called Peace the reader spends a fair amount of time with Eight Antidote, who literally is the heir apparent to the Tleixcalaan Empire. Because of his age (and position) he becomes the vehicle the author uses to show the reader different aspects of Tleixcalaan culture and how contingent communication (and interpretation) are.

Mahit is still central to the resolution of the plot and is definitely still should be considered the main character in A Desolation Called Peace but I think it is a clear improvement over A Memory Called Empire that there are multiple other characters to carry the narrative thrust of the plot. I enjoyed this book more than the first. Right now it is not clear if the Tleixcalaan books are a duology or a trilogy, but I would definitely love to read a third book featuring Mahit having further adventures in Tleixcalaan space!

Title: A Desolation Called Peace (Tleixcalaan, #2).
Arkady Martine.
Format: Electronic (CloudLibrary).
Length: 496 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: March 2, 2021.
Date Read: May 20, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).



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