Make Way for Tomorrow

Robert Sherman, one half of the Sherman brothers, died yesterday. You might not know who they were, but I bet you can whistle one of their songs. I haven’t knowingly seen or heard “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” for twenty years, and yet when I read that obituary it immediately popped into my head, and I still know all the words. In the terrifyingly large portion of my brain occupied with remembering song lyrics, I reckon the Sherman Brothers are taking up a good few percent.

When I was a kid, we went to Walt Disney World. This was the early nineties, when Epcot was still attempting to be educational and fun, mostly through the medium of insanely catchy songs – not all written by the Shermans, but all with the general theme of how amazing science/the world/the universe was. One of the rides was Journey into Imagination, a ride housed in a double glass pyramid, which took you on a trip through someone’s imagination, with a little purple dragon called Figment (voiced by Dave Goelz) and a Sherman Brothers song that lodged itself in your brain and never left. Yes, it was astonishingly cheesy by adult standards, but as a six-year-old it was enthralling. So enthralling that when they revamped it, in favour of a much less charming ride where Eric Idle berated you for lack of imagination, it lasted two years before revamped it again, and put Figment back in.

(In the same building you could also see Captain Eo, probably the first 3D film I ever saw, in which Michael Jackson saves the universe through the power of dance. It was a lot better when I was six.)

Not all of their songs were earwormy in a good way – I’m afraid to mention “It’s A Small World”, because I imagine it is now lodged permanenly in your brain – but one of their most earwormy songs is probably the best summary of the Walt Disney thinking that still ran through the theme parks even after his death. It’s about looking towards the future of technology and mankind, but couched in nostalgia for the past and a future that seems limited by what a man in 1960s America could imagine. “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” plays during the Carousel of Progress, a twenty-minute show devoted to how technology has changed our lives[2] and will continue to do so, and like the song it is relentless. It was first developed for the 1964 World’s Fair and is now horribly dated but still has a certain charm, or at least provides an air-conditioned place to sit during the Florida summer.

It’s easy to parody Disney and this frame of mind – Cave Johnson and to a lesser extent Andrew Ryan[1]Iron Man 2. The Stark Expo from 1974 is a pretty direct reference to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and if you’ve ever seen the video of Walt Disney talking about his plans for Epcot, you’ll recognise it in the footage of Roger Sterling Howard Stark that Tony spends so long watching. (There’s a model of Epcot just like the model of the Expo, although to my knowledge it does not contain hidden information about a new element.) And what better was to top off your Disney parody? With an upbeat Sherman brothers song about the joys of tomorrow, instantly recognisable as one of their songs to any one who grew up with them.

[1] Well, the lives of the average American suburban two kids and a dog family at least.
[2] I know Andrew Ryan = Ayn Rand (or maybe Howard Hughes), but there’s an Ayn Rand quote up on the wall in Epcot Center, next to inspirational quotes from Charles Lindberg, Herman Melville, and Disney himself.

The Kitschies

The winners of the Kitschies were announced on Friday night, which basically proved I am horrendously bad at predicting awards. I posted my predictions over at Martin’s blog, and managed a 1 in 3 success rate. The success was the Golden Tentacle category, where having read only God’s War I nonetheless felt confident in predicting it would win, and I knew I was correct even before the judges made a remark about the winner being about organ donation. Score one for me, and a well-deserved winner of a fetching and cuddly trophy.

For the Inky Tentacle I had an obvious front-runner in the form of A Monster Calls, which is full of gorgeous, unsettling illustrations, and even taking the cover alone I didn’t see how the others could compete against that. But I didn’t think the rest of the covers on the shortlist were all that brilliant – no nods for the stylish, slightly retro cover for By Light Alone, or the striking cover of The Kingdom of Gods, and even if you’re more into graphic design and layout than actual artwork, I’d still take the cover of Osama, or maybe the foreboding image from Zone One over most of the nominees. The eventual winner was the cover for Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, which just proves that it is very difficult to second-guess someone’s taste in art when you are clearly miles and miles apart.

I had a strong personal frontrunner for the Inky Tentacle, and a strong suspicion that I would be completely wrong. I thought the Red Tentacle would be much easier to predict, but I was once again totally off. I like A Monster Calls a lot – it is moving and emotional and beautifully illustrated, and the more I think about it the more I realise how beautiful the pacing is, building up to the climax which is not shocking but satisying and sad all the same. It made me cry, a wee bit, and not a lot of books do that. If I were picking the best book of the year, with no other criteria, I might be tempted to choose it.

But the Kitschies do have criteria. They are for the year’s “most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works”, and even without having read the whole shortlist, I have a hard time seeing how A Monster Calls fulfils these better than two of the other novels – Osama and Embassytown. Osama engages with violence and terrorism through the trappings of noir and pulp fiction, while Embassytown is a dissertation of language and linguistics and philosophy wrapped up in a space opera. Both reward careful reading and thinking and have sparked extensive discussion, while A Monster Calls is a book I reacted to on an entirely different, emotional level. Perhaps, as as was suggested while queueing for fish and chips shortly before the award presentation, I am looking at the criteria for awards in the wrong way – having decided all these books were progressive, entertaining, and intelligent enough to be on the shortlist, it remained only to pick the best of the five as the winner. But I’m still a little surprised by the choice.

Locus Recommended Reading: now with hyperlinks!

Locus have published their annual recommended reading list without links to any of the short fiction, so here’s a roundup of all the stories I could find online.

Novellas
‘Kiss Me Twice’, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11)
‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ (PDF), Ken Liu (Panverse Three)
Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

Novelettes
‘The Silver Wind’ (PDF), Nina Allan (Interzone 3-4/11)
‘Six Months, Three Days‘, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com 6/8/11)
‘Queen of Atlantis’, Sarah Rees Brennan (Subterranean Summer ’11)
‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’ (PDF), Paul Cornell (Asimov’s 7/11)
‘Bronsky’s Dates with Death’ (PDF), Peter David (F&SF 7-8/11)
‘The Iron Shirts’, Michael F. Flynn (Tor.com 5/4/11)
‘A Long Walk Home‘, Jay Lake (Subterranean Winter ’11)
‘Ghostweight’, Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld 1/11)
‘The Cold Step Beyond’, Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s 6/11)
‘The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book)’, Nnedi Okorafor (Clarkesworld 3/11)
‘A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong’, K.J. Parker (Subterranean Winter ’11)
‘The Dala Horse’, Michael Swanwick (Tor.com 7/13/11)
‘White Lines on a Green Field’, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Fall ’11)
‘’The Boneless One’, Alec Nevala-Lee (Analog 11/11)

Short Stories
‘Dolly’ (audio), Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s 1/11)
‘Walls of Paper, Soft as Skin’, Adam Calloway (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 7/14/11)
‘The Brave Little Toaster’ (audio), Cory Doctorow (TRSF)
‘Breaking the Ice’, Thoraiya Dyer (Cosmos 2-3/11)
‘Younger Women’, Karen Joy Fowler (Subterranean Summer ’11)
‘Movement’ (audio), Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s 3/11)
‘Canterbury Hollow’, Chris Lawson (F&SF 1-2/11)
‘Valley of the Girls’, Kelly Link (Subterranean Summer ’11)
‘The Paper Menagerie’ (PDF), Ken Liu (F&SF 3-4/11)
‘Tying Knots’, Ken Liu (Clarkesworld 1/11)
‘All That Touches the Air’, An Owomoyela (Lightspeed 4/11)
‘Ragnarok’, Paul Park (Tor.com 4/17/11)
‘The Immortality Game’, Cat Rambo (Fantasy 6/11)
‘Woman Leaves Room’, Robert Reed (Lightspeed 3/11)
‘The Onset of a Paranormal Romance’, Bruce Sterling (Flurb Fall/Winter ’11)
‘Red Dawn: A Chow Mein Western’, Lavie Tidhar (Fantasy 11/11)
‘The Smell of Orange Groves’, Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld 11/11)
‘The Bread We Eat in Dreams’, Catherynne M. Valente (Apex 11/11)
‘The Sandal-Bride’, Genevieve Valentine (Fantasy 3/11)
‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’, E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld 4/11)
‘Absinthe Fish’, M. David Blake (Bull Spec Spring ’11)

More Neanderthal Than You

A few months ago, I spotted that 23andme.com were having a sale. 23andme sell personal genomics services – you pay them your cash, and they will post you a sample collection kit. You spit in it, send it back to California, and a month or two later they email you and tell you your results are available for viewing.

What exactly do they do? They extract your DNA, put it on a genotyping chip (a customized Illumina BeadChip) and report the bases at roughly 1 million positions in your DNA which are known to vary in the human population and do something interesting[1]. (The variable positions are called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, or SNPs). The human genome has something like 3 billion bases, so it’s not exactly your whole genomeon the chip[2], but it is a sufficient number of the variable positions to tell you a whole host of things about your ancestry, your health, and various other genetic traits.

Why did I get my genotype done? Because I’m a geneticist, and having my genotype is cool, and a lot of the results are entirely frivolous yet cool. It’s fun to know that I am 2.9% Neanderthal, which is probably a bit more Neanderthal than you (2.9% puts me in the 89th percentile), but it’s pretty meaningless otherwise. Similarly, the traits page tells me I am likely to have brown eyes and brown hair with a slight curl, which is also cool but not exactly something I needed to post my spit 3,000 miles to find out about. Other traits are a little more useful – my genotype is AA for the SNP rs601338[3], which means I have the version of the FUTS2 gene which protects against Norovirus infections.

Heading up the scale of usefulness, 23andme check if you’re a carrier for a set of common mutations, including ones which cause nasty diseases in homozygous individuals but go unnoticed in heterozygous carriers. I don’t have any of them, which is a nice relief or rather a nice relief for my hypothetical offspring in the case of the recessive ones, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t carry some other mutation that 23andme don’t test for.

The key part, and what I would guess a lot of customers are most interested in, is the section on disease risks. 23andme only report hard numbers for your disease risk where they consider there is established research, and everything else is considered preliminary research, and you just get either elevated, decreased, or typical risk. I think that’s a pretty sensible move – for instance, I have an established research finding of decreased risk, which is contradicted by some preliminary research claiming elevated risk, but the decreased risk finding is the reliable one at the moment. And they give absolute as well as relative risk, which is essential when telling someone they have an elevated risk of an extremely rare disease. There’s a few pages you have to opt-in specifically to see, so you are doubly certain you want to see your Alzheimer’s or breast cancer risks before you see them, as the effects for some of the known mutations for those diseases are pretty large.

Much like my carrier status, my disease risk is (happily) quite boring, and contains more decreased risks than elevated ones (it is even less likely to be lupus than for most people). But now I have 1 million positions from my DNA, safely downloaded on my hard drive, and I can’t predict what might be lurking in there to be found in the future. A lot of the strong associations may have been found, but there’s all sorts of complex patterns of genetic inheritance to be found and I know I won’t be able to resist finding out what type I have (I clicked on the hidden disease risk pages straight away). On the other hand, what I have found doesn’t worry me that much – the risk is just that, in the end, and even an increased risk doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get a particular disease (and conversely, nor do my protective alleles guarantee I won’t). And I give it five to ten years before we start routinely sequencing cancer patients, and not many more years after that before we start sequencing for all sorts of routine reasons, probably at birth, so whatever is hidden in my genome won’t stay hidden for long.

[1] Technically, I believe it is sometimes a SNP in complete linkage disequilibrium with the SNP that is interesting.
[2] Whole-genome sequencing is still pretty expensive, but 23andme are starting to offer the whole exome (all the bits of the genome which code for DNA) for a mere $999. The catch is that you get your raw exome data – it’s not even clear to me whether it’s variant calls, or just the raw sequences – so good luck doing anything sensible with that unless you really know what you’re doing.
[3] rs numbers are the standardised dbSNP IDs, which you can look up on SNPedia, or stick them into Google Scholar to find papers which reference them.

Two reviews

The theme of today’s reviews is Martin’s tweet from earlier this week:

Just read a book I was hoping to love which was awful and one I thought would be mediocre but was excellent. This isn’t that uncommon.

Which brings me to Reamde, Neal Stephenson’s latest doorstop. It’s a thousand-page technothriller, combining the dynamics and player exploits of the fictional MMO T’Rain, a weird hybrid of Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and EVE Online, with a more conventional thriller involving globetrotting terrorists, hackers, and law enforcement. I was hoping for Snow Crash 2.0, and something which would be as mindblowing as reading Cryptonomicon the first time, and it isn’t that. The parts which actually deal with T’Rain are fine – Richard Forthrast, reformed draft-dodger and pot-smuggler turned game designer, is at least a little different to every other nerdy male hacker character Stephenson has written. The mechanics he works into the MMO are pretty clever, and the idea of viruses targeting MMO players and legitimising money-laundering through a virtual economy are only one step removed from current events.

The problem is that the cool parts are welded to a really long, occasionally tedious techno-thriller. Richard’s niece, Zula, gets caught up with the Russian mafia, who kidnap her and take her to China to try and find some T’Rain hackers who have stolen their money. As well as finding the hackers, they find Islamic terrorists, who kidnap Zula again, take her to Canada, and plan to extort money form the fabulously wealthy Richard, as well as blowing up some stuff in the US. Because they’re Islamic terrorists, and that’s what they do.

I like Zula, who is smart and competent and does eventually manage to escape from the terrorists herself without waiting to be rescued, and helps bring them down. It doesn’t make the three hundred pages[1] of Zula being threatened, tied up, assaulted, tied up by some different terrorists, chained up, and eventually threatened by a bear[2] any less wearying to read. I generally like Stephensonian digressions, and I will happily read a dozen pages about banking systems, or an explanation of Enigma machines by way of bicycle gears, or even that weird bit in Cryptonomicon about the couple with the fetish for sex on antique furniture, so it’s weird that I hit my limit when he spends time discussing exactly how the terrorists construct a cage for Zula in the back of the RV they have been driving around Canada for the past hundred pages.

As technothrillers go, and it’s not a genre I’ve read particularly widely, it’s not bad – not many novels of terrorism and intrigue really stop to consider the problems of flying a great circle path and what to do when you are trapped in China without your passport, and I have absolutely no idea whether all the parts about guns are accurate, but they feel like someone’s put in the research about what you can realistically do with automatic weaponry. It’s just that there’s hundreds of pages of it, culminating in a running battle along the Canadian border which brings together all the disparate protagonists, and the MMO part of the book is completely forgotten. And there’s the ending, which feels like the weird epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where you find that everyone has been paired up[3], as if you don’t want to leave any loose ends but must tie everyone up into couples.

It’s not a terrible book, it’s just Stephenson’s least interesting or entertaining once since, well, ever.

From the latest disappointment I go to one of 2011′s unexpected surprises, in the form of God’s War by Kameron Hurley, a book relentlessly pimped by Niall to the entire SF community so it’s a good job that it’s excellent. I’m not sure I have a great deal to add to Dan and Niall‘s reviews, but I wanted to back up their views. There’s so much that I like about it, so many complex, interesting characters, a colony world which is not one homogenous culture but all these different nation-states from a common source, so many nuanced views on religion and gender and war and power. If I were to criticise it, I’d say that the plot is not that interesting – a fairly straightforward tale of the team who have to track down a missing person who inevitably has secrets which may shake the very foundations of their society, etc etc – but you won’t really care. The bugs, the organic insect technology that is ubiquitous on Umayma, are interesting but frustratingly unexplained, at least to my scientist brain, as are the shifters who can take animal forms, but there’s something wonderfully squishy and organic about it all. In short, it is visceral and exciting and it is less than a thousand pages, and it is a mere six dollars for your preferred ereading device. Go buy it.

[1] Exact page count is a guess, because I read it on the Kindle and there aren’t page numbers as such, but it certainly felt interminable.
[2] Not only does Zula get menaced by a bear, she also meets a mountain lion who plays a key role in her eventual escape from her captors. I can only assume she is a deliberate reverse Kim Bauer.
[3] Except without the terrible make-up/CGI job that makes them all look like teenagers dressed up in their dad’s cardigans.

The Problem of Julia

(Warning: I will now spoil most of the plot of The Magician King by Lev Grossman, and all of the ending.)

If The Magicians was messing around with tropes of portal fantasies and schools of magic (for more, see Elizabeth Hand’s excellent review in F&SF), The Magician King is two parallel narratives playing with the idea of the quest fantasy. Quentin Coldwater, Brakebills graduate and King of Fillory, goes on a quest to find a quest and stumbles into one on the way, involving seven golden keys and the means to save the world of magic. The other narrative tells the story of Julia, Quentin’s high school friend, who didn’t go to exclusive magical college Brakebills but uncovered powerful magic on her own, and what happened to her along the way leading up to her surprise appearance at the end of The Magicians.

Julia and Quentin’s stories diverge at the point of the Brakebills entrance exam. Quentin passes the test, and gets admitted to Brakebills. Julia fails, and should have had all memory of Brakebills wiped, except the job was less than perfectly done, and Julia is left with memories of something she’s missing, that doesn’t fall into place until she sees Quentin again. She goes in search of magic, dredging up every clue she can find, hanging on to the tiniest pieces of magic, ruining her relationships and her life, while Quentin gets the all-you-can-eat buffet of magical learning at Brakebills. We get the flipside of the scene from The Magicians, where Julia shows off the one spell she knows, and Quentin is thoroughly unimpressed. She nearly gives up the quest altogether, but she chances upon the world of underground magic, more fragments of magic put together and copied and passed around, and rises up through the ranks of the secret magical world until she gets admitted to the most elite group of all. (Incidentally, it is Julia’s magical connections that help Quentin and Julia during Quentin’s quest, when the professors of Brakebills are utterly useless, but Quentin is still horrified by the thought of all these unsupervised magicians running around.)

Julia and her friends want to go further, and as they research and investigate and dig into the source of their magical power, it becomes clear that whatever is going to happen has terrible, terrible consequences for magic in the world, and that Quentin’s quest is to save it. Quentin must pass into the underworld, and Julia goes with him, only none of the dead can see or hear her, and we get a hint of what she lost on her quest for magical power:

‘”I am starting to understand,” said Julia. “It is really gone. The part of me that was human, the part of me that could die – it is gone, Quentin, I have lost it forever. That is why they cannot see me.” She was talking to him, but her black eyes were fixed on the distance. “I am never going to be human again. I did not understand it till now. I have lost my shade. I suppose I knew it. I just did not want to understand it.’

Back in the past timeframe, Julia and her friends attempt to summon a god, or at least a godlike being, in the hope of increasing their magical power. They think they will meet Our Lady Underground, a hopefully-benevolent goddess, and gain her help – being the kind of highly focused nerds they are, they map out the options of how a god might respond, and what sacrifice they might require, symbolic or otherwise, for her wisdom. We know it’s not going to go exactly how they hope.

They’ve been tricked. The ritual summons not Our Lady Underground, but Reynard the trickster god. Like the inadvertent summoning of the Beast in The Magicians, we get another of the horrible scenes which reminds us how very powerful and terrifying magic is in Grossman’s world, as Reynard kills all the magicians in turn. All bar Julia and Asmodeus, the youngest of them. Julia offers her life up as a sacrifice, if he will let Asmodeus live; Reynard accepts her offer, offers to give her the power she seeks, but he rapes her instead, giving her the power and taking away what makes her human.

‘It was something invisible that had been with her always, and Reynard ripped it away. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt it go, and she shuddered when she felt it.Without it she was something different, something other than what she had been before. Reynard had given her power, and taken something in payment that she would have died rather than give up. But she didn’t get to choose.’

I hate this scene, and narrowly avoided throwing the book across the room in disgust. Julia is always there as a contrast to Quentin, who always expected something like Brakebills to fall into his lap – “When he walked into that room he’d buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen his whole life” – while Julia always planned to take control and make things happen for herself. And she does, she fights for everything she gets, chooses to pursue this course and find magic and become a magician, along with all the others than Quentin scorns for not going to exclusive magical prep schools, and then all her agency gets taken away, and she has no choices at all.

At the very end of the book, after Julia has come to terms with the loss of her shade, and become some kind of divine daughter of Our Lady Underground, she gets the chance to journey to a new world, one as far beyond Fillory as Fillory is from our world. And she can’t:

‘”You and your friends invoked the gods, and drew our attention to us, and brought them back. You betrayed this world, however unknowingly, in order to increase your own power. There must be consequences.”‘

Julia’s friends, the ones she had come to think of as family, where she had finally found some contentment, are nearly all dead, and she was raped by an angry god so hard he ripped out what made her human, but that isn’t enough – she must be further punished for daring to try and take more magical power than she was allowed. For doing magic outside the system, Julia will be blocked from passing through the portal. To his credit, Quentin spots the hypocrisy, and he tells the gatekeepers he will take Julia’s sins and punishment upon himself, leaving her free to move on. It’s the culmination of the process Quentin goes through on his own quest – becoming the hero, and paying the price – but it comes at the expense of Julia getting to make her own decisions, and leaves her free to find peace only by someone else’s sacrifice. I like Quentin’s story, I like that he gets to the point where he can risk the happiness he’s found and not be destroyed by the consequences. I just don’t find him as interesting as Julia, and I wish she didn’t end up as the catalyst to his plot.

(You can also count me as someone who thinks that Team Reynard ribbons and T-shirt graphics have not yet passed beyond creepy.)

A Leisurely Walk with Dragons

Here’s the problem: A Dance with Dragons is a very long book which does not have enough plot.

I poked around for other ways to start this post, but that’s what it boils down to. I haven’t been waiting seven years, having only finished A Feast for Crows a year ago, but even so A Dance with Dragons fails to be as satisfying as the previous four volumes. Almost everything I was expecting to happen fails to happen – not necessarily bad, but it’s not that interesting things happen instead, it’s that the characters wander round doing things I don’t really care about, marking time until they can be manouvered into the right position, and the ending fizzles out.

Daenarys, for example, starts off in Meereen. Having decided at the end of A Storm of Swords to stay and rule Meereen, rather than leaving the freed slave city to its own devices, she spends an awful lot of chapters not doing a lot. She finds out that ruling your conquered city is hard, and trying to dismantle the structures of slavery is also difficult, and that sometimes you have to make a political marriage to further the cause of many rather than marry the man you really want, but I was disappointed with how much Daenarys actually got to do – she made some decisions, married in order to broker peace, and showed some compassion towards the sick, but at the end of the book there’s still a battle brewing with Yunkai and Volantis and probably some other places I have lost track of, just like there was a battle brewing with Yunkai and Volantis on page 12 except now some people have moved around. And Dany finally rides one of her dragons, and flies away from Meereen, maybe to start a whole new plot. I do at least like what they do with the dragons, who are not anthropomorphised fluffy creatures but vicious and unpredictable killers who have to be locked away, and Dany does not immediately master the dragon and fly around having happy adventures, so there is that.

Meanwhile Tyrion is across the narrow sea. His plot runs like this: he joins up with a group of adventurers on a boat trip, gets captured, gets dragged on another boat trip, gets captured and sold as a slave, escapes from slavery and signs up with some mercenaries. And this puts him outside Meereen at the right point to possibly take part in the battle, which will happen in book six. Probably. Yes, there’s some character development. Yes, he learns some useful information. Could it have been done in fewer chapters and with less comedy dwarf jousting? Quite probably. I like Tyrion, and I like Dany, but outside of them and a couple of other characters, I find it hard to care about any of the hundreds of characters in the Meereen chapters, or to keep track of who they are. GRRM has talked about the “Meerenese knot”, the problem which plagued his writing of trying to get all the characters lined up in the right place at the right time, but I don’t think he’s quite managed to unpick it.

It’s not all negative, or I wouldn’t have ever made it through a thousand pages – there’s a definite quickening of the pace about the halfway mark that drew me back in, and the chapters set in Westeros are more engaging. It may not be officially winter until the closing chapter of the book, but it certainly feels like it, with Bran and his companions trekking through the snow, and the march of Stannis and his armies through the storms of the north. It’s essentially a continuation of the politics, treachery and uncertainty of the first few books, as the Manderlys and Freys and Karstarks trade their allegiances and plot to turn on Stannis and Roose Bolton, and it also brings some of the best chapters every time we go back to Reek. Once again Martin makes an unlikeable character sympathetic; this time he undergoes horrendous tortures at the hands of arguably the most evil character in the books, which is pretty much guaranteed to win my sympathy, but every chapter is heart-wrenching and awful.

And again we’re setting up for a battle, and again we don’t get it. We get some developments (and it took me far too long to work out who the bard at Winterfell and his women were), and Ramsay Bolton’s letter implies that Stannis has been defeated, but that’s presumably a feint, as he didn’t capture Reek and Jeyne. I don’t mind if we have a battle, or if Stannis and his host freeze to death in the snow, or if a dragon swoops down and saves them all, but it spends quite a long time not happening, and while the icy march is atmospheric and Asha is an interesting character, I want something to happen.

Even when old friends from A Feast for Crows return, it’s sometimes frustrating. Cersei’s chapters are riveting as she continues her downward spiral, and I liked Arya’s and Melisandre’s chapters – in general, the female characters get a pretty good deal. Jaime’s sole chapter poses more questions that it answers – Brienne we can presume is either not dead, or undead, but we have no idea what her final cry was, or whose side she is on. And that’s another thing I noticed – for all of Martin’s tendency to kill off characters, there’s not a lot of death in A Dance with Dragons. At least one character thought to be long dead turns up alive, there’s at least two death fake-outs that I recall, and I’m certain that the surprising final death is not a death at all, since it’s so heavily hinted at in the prologue. About the only death of note is Quentyn Martell, who spent a whole book getting himself over to Meereen so he could get fried by a dragon (presumably to show that it’s not the “blood of the dragon” that is the key to controlling them). The series is ramping up the magical and supernatural elements, but I would rather not have too many characters turn out to be magically undead in some way or another.

In summary, it’s got some good moments but they aren’t really enough to push it along, and I wish that it had been edited down into one book along with A Feast for Crows, as it would make a single really fine novel.

A note on the Kindle edition: the Kindle price came down below that of the paperback, so I bought it on the Kindle to save lugging around a thousand-page brick. And I regretted it. First, for a couple of practical reasons: it’s hard to flip back and forth to the maps and the character pages at the back while you’re reading. This is not enough to spoil the experience. What was almost enough to spoil it is that the Kindle edition is very badly formatted. There are hyphens in the middle of words, weirdness with the starting words of chapters, but worst it is missing a whole lot of line breaks between speakers, rendering conversations very confusing. For example:

“Do you have a better way?” Quentyn asked him. “I do. It’s just now come to me. It has its risks, and it is not what you would call honorable, I grant you … but it will get you to your queen quicker than the demon road.”

“Tell me,” said Quentyn Martell.

Either Quentyn is having a conversation with himself, or there’s something funky going on. I tried deleting and redownloading the book, but it didn’t fix it. This is the first time I’ve paid more than a few quid for an ebook, and it’s got the worst formatting so far, and it’s not a good advert for the Kindle store. If I’d bought the hardback and torrented the ebook I could at least have gone in and fixed the line breaks as I went along.

Further adventures with Miles

“The Mountains of Mourning”
My omnibus editions of the Vorkosigan saga continue with “The Mountains of Mourning”, which catches up with Miles shortly after he leaves the Imperial Academy. I was surprised that there wasn’t going to be a whole book of Miles’s exploits at officer training camp, but the final chapter of The Warrior’s Apprentice covers that quite neatly, and “The Mountains of Mourning” is an entirely different beast. Miles is sent to solve a local dispute in his role as Lord Vorkosigan, and we see another side of Barrayar away from the officers and nobles of the previous book – the isolated villages where the peasants of this barely-past-feudal society live. Miles has to investigate the death of a child, one born with a genetic defects that makes it feared and hated by the people, and it’s the first time we hear the rationale for that hatred – that Barrayar was cut off from the rest of the galaxy when their wormhole closed, and the limited genetic diversity of the colonists led to a fear of inbred mutants. Including Miles himself, even though, as he is happy to recount at every opportunity, his physical defects do not extend to his germline. Anyway, it’s a reasonably done mystery, which expands the characterization of Miles and the worldbuilding of Barrayar, and it’s better written than the previous novel, with a much more sombre tone.

The Vor Game
“The Mountains of Mourning” convinced me that the series could rise above entertaining space opera into something even better, and The Vor Game continues the trend. The first section covers Miles’s first assignment as Ensign Vorkosigan, and instead of the ship duty he longs for, he gets sent off to a backwater base to learn how to be subordinate to his superiors. He promptly mutinies (for good reason, but not the best way to prove he can obey orders), and to deal with the inconvenience this causes, he’s sent off to be Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries again, where he investigates, gets kidnapped, discovers a multitude of hidden and double-crossing plots, and wins an enormous space battle that he can never tell anyone about. Again it hinges on convenience, as Miles just happens to get locked up at the same time as Emperor Gregor of Barrayar, who has fled his duties in a moment of personal crisis. I like Gregor, who has to juggle the pressure of ruling three planets with the fear that power will turn him mad, and that something of his mad ancestors is lurking within his genes. He’s not as smart as Miles, although practically no one is, but he’s not incompetent or stupid, just human, and he and Miles have the sort of slightly awkward friend you get when you grew up together and one of you became supreme ruler.

I wasn’t as excited by Cavilo, the sexy yet ruthless lady mercenary, because she doesn’t get to do much beyond being a sexy lady mercenary of unknown motives, and there’s not enough of Elena, the mercenary commander of the previous books. I’m slightly surprised this won a Hugo, although admittedly I haven’t read the rest of the nominees – it’s pretty good, but it’s a similar sort of thing to The Warrior’s Apprentice, only better executed.

Cetaganda
Onwards to the “Miles, Mystery and Mayhem” omnibus (who names these things, anyway?), and thanks to reading these in book-chronological order, we’re now at a book written in 1995, combined with a novel written in 1986, and a novella from 1989. And it shows – Cetaganda is by far the best of the three. Miles, along with stupid cousin Ivan, is sent to Cetaganda to represent Barrayar at a noblewoman’s funeral, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy literally from the moment they dock. Cetagandan society and gender roles are complex and opaque to outsiders, and tied up with their genetics and the control of the Cetagandan gene pool, and I found it all fascinating as Miles gets slowly sucked in and realises how wrong many of his early assumptions were. I could do without all the passages about how mesmerisingly attractive the high-ranking Cetagandan ladies are, but Miles does get over it and work with them, and the local security chief who helps Miles’s investigation is nicely sympathetic.

Ethan of Athos
This book feels like a backward step after Cetaganda – the premise is intriguing but the other parts are somewhat lacking. Athos is an all-male society, and Bujold has thought about how reproduction would work, and the plot centres around Ethan, a doctor who is sent to locate more ovarian cultures to enable their society to continue. Inevitably he gets sucked into another conspiracy, and there’s another book of running around finding clues and working out what’s going on, except this time we’re following Ethan, who is not nearly as interesting as Miles, and Elli Quinn, a minor character from The Warrior’s Apprentice who gets to take the lead. Elli is pretty great, as she’s got a huge crush on Miles and uses him as inspiration to get herself out of trouble, but is still resourceful and determined and generally pretty cool. Ethan, predictably, discovers during his time with Elli that not all women are terrifying, and goes back to Athos where he will spark off a revolution. But not the one I expected – instead it’s tied up with the other component of the conspiracy, a genetically-engineered Cetagandan telepath trying to escape what the Cetagandans have planned for him. Together they implant the genes for telepathy in all the ovarian tissue Ethan takes back to Athos, as the limited maternal gene pool of the Athosians ensures that telepaths will slowly become a majority on Athos, rather than a persecuted minority anywhere else. But it’s all a bit cavalier – the telepath, Terrance, was planning to sneak the genes into the gene pool without telling anyone, and in the end Ethan does the same, and for a plan which will forcibly change an entire world, there’s surprisingly little discussion. One telepath was a valuable military resource, and a whole peaceful, barely defended planet of them will surely be of interest to the stronger Cetagandan empire, but the decision is justified because, as Ethan says, “Someone had to make it”, and the planetary authorities will never make a decision. And Athos doesn’t quite make sense – how and why did it come to exist in the first place? Is everyone on Athos comfortably homosexual? There’s mention of parenting roles being shared between relatives and friends, but also hints that Terrance might “grow accustomed to our ways” while he lives on Athos. It’s a case of a book not doing what I want it to do, and in the end that’s my problem; but it also seems strange to set up this whole culture, and use it as the backdrop to more running around a space station.

Labyrinth
And back to Miles Vorkosigan for this last novella. And it’s an odd one. Miles is ostensibly buying weapons on Jackson’s Whole, the planet of dodgy weapons dealers. He’s really there to pick up a doctor who wishes to defect to Barrayar, and they are in need of a good geneticist, since they’ve just had a sample of telepath DNA dumped in their lap. Of course it gets more complicated – the doctor has for some reason lodged some previous genetic samples in the calf muscle of a mutant super-soldier, and Miles has to get them back before he’ll leave.

The mutant super-soldier, it turns out, is not just sentient but human, an intelligent teenage werewolf mutant female super-soldier, and Miles does rescue her. Once they’ve had sex. It’s … odd. She initiates it, wanting him to prove to her that she’s human by finding her attractive, and so Miles is forced to comply but turns out to be quite keen on it, and Nine (the aforementioned werewolf mutant super-soldier etc) goes from feral roaring to sex-starved to insecure and needy within about five pages, and we’ve only just met her. I don’t know if there is a good way to do a scene in which the hero deflowers a teenage werewolf, but there are probably worse ways than how it plays out.

The rest is a romp to the finish, as Miles pisses off several powerful houses on Jackson’s Whole but manages to get away unscathed. Unfortunately a key plot point is the destruction of the genetic library of one of these houses, by warming up their freezers, but if you were a powerful businessman whose work depended on your extensive genetic library, would you have one copy? No, you’d have half a dozen independent backup freezers at a minimum, with a copy of all your viral vectors. And a dozen hard-drives with all the sequences so you can synthesize them from scratch, although I’ll forgive that one for a work written in 1989.

Despite the iffiness of the last two works, I’m still enjoying it, and Bujold definitely knows how to write a pacy, twisty plotline and memorable characters. I get the sense that there is a really cracking novel waiting to come out of this series, even if if I haven’t found it yet, and hopefully I won’t be proved wrong. There’s only nine more novels to go…

In which I join the 21st century

I have a traditional method of buying expensive new technology: I think vaguely about it for a few months, then I think seriously about it for a couple of weeks and do a whole bunch of reading, then I dither for another couple of weeks while I decide whether to buy it. This is an excellent habit which saves me from enormous credit card bills, and means I don’t pay the early adopter tax.

In this case I realised that my dream ereader, which has a large colour screen, reads all formats including PDF, and has a battery life of several months, does not exist and is not about to pop into existence. So I bought a Kindle instead.

It is, mostly, made of awesome. It is thin and light, the screen is excellent, the controls are fine and I can read it one-handed while standing up, I can’t tell you how good the battery life is because I haven’t managed to run it down yet. Take two books onto the train? Not any more! I should have bought one ages ago, except it would have been more expensive and not as good, but you get the point. I think I would quite happily read all books from my Kindle.

Now I have an ereader, I have to navigate the murky world of ebooks, formats, and DRM. A few recommendations:

  • Calibre is a piece of software for organising your ebook library. There may be others; I do not know, because everyone recommends Calibre, and that is because it is great. I got it to manage my library, and also because it converts epub to mobi – the Kindle does not read epub, and while most books are available as mobi because otherwise you cut out a big swathe of your audience, the ability to convert is handy.
  • Wizard’s Tower Press is where I bought my first ebook, Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique. I bought it because the paperback would cost me £7, the DRM-ed Kindle version is £3.50, and this copy was £2.99 for a DRM-free version. No contest.
  • Webscriptions sell a lot of books by Baen, but also books by Night Shade Press, all of which are $6 and DRM-free. This is how I bought God’s War, like everyone else who follows Niall on Twitter, but I also picked up Strahan’s Year’s Best 5, and have my eye on a couple more. Baen have also made the entire Vorkosigan saga available for free, because they think that will increase sales – readers will buy the hardbacks, buy copies for their friends, buy future books in the series and other Baen works. I’d be interested to know if this has worked – I think I am more likely to buy future Vorkosigan books, but I have another fourteen to get through before I get to that point, and if they’d made only two or three of them available for free, they might have sold me the other twelve. It’s an interesting strategy, anyway.
  • I haven’t actually bought any books from Fictionwise yet, because I am dithering over whether to get Asimov’s from here, or as a Kindle sub. Fictionwise has the advantage of being DRM-free, but the Kindle sub would automatically send it to my Kindle. What I find fascinating about Fictionwise is that looking at the charts, for multi-format (ie, DRM-free) books, the top sellers have tons and tons of SF&F romance and erotica, and most of it very short. (And also they overestimate reading time, or else I read very fast.) It’s a market I was basically not aware of, but is clearly doing okay.
  • Angry Robot Books have their own online store, where I can buy DRM-free epub. Do any of the other UK imprints have an equivalent?
  • Ebook pricing and availability is obviously a big thing right now. I’m probably more informed than the average book buyer – I know that ebooks have 20% VAT, and I know that not a great deal of the price of a book is the paper it’s printed on – but I still find some ebook pricing confusing.

    Take A Dance with Dragons, which I would like to read as soon as it comes out, and is only out as a hardback sure to be about the size and weight of a brick. Reading it on my Kindle would be a whole lot easier. The ebook is currently more expensive than the hardback, and I realise the book is being heavily discounted, but I don’t want to pay more for the privilege of an electronic copy I can’t lend out. (Or stun a burglar with, but I already have a copy of The Wise Man’s Fear for that.)

    Which brings me to DRM. Books from the Kindle store have DRM on them. I realise that most books I buy and read once, and for a few quid for a paperback, it’s not worth worrying about what happens in the future if I decided to replace my Kindle with another device – I don’t reread that many books, and I might have ditched the physical copy anyway. Still, it bothers me, and I am less inclined to buy books from the Kindle store because of it, and I resent paying the same for an ebook as a physical book when I don’t get all the rights I get with the physical book, namely the right to tell my friends it is brilliant and lend them my copy. I have bought one book from the Kindle store, to give it a spin, and it was absolutely painless, but I am always aware that I am buying a license, and not really buying the book. I know I could strip the DRM pretty painlessly, but I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want to feel like a cheeky pirate for wanting to buy a book and not the right to read it for a while until the servers go down, or they block my account.

    And finally, Cryptonomicon. My copy has literally fallen apart, and an ebook would be perfect. I can only find ebook versions in German. Sort it out.

The Warrior’s Apprentice

The problem with the Vorkosigan saga is that I had no idea where to start. The series has, I think, fifteen books and a handful of novellas and shorter works, and thanks to the Baen Free Library I had most of them, confusingly bundled as omnibus editions. Chronologically seemed a good bet, but do I want chronologically in order of publication, or in order of the internal chronology of the books?

I consulted the internet, which suggested The Warrior’s Apprentice, the beginning of Miles Vorkosigan’s story, was a good place to begin. Miles is the scion of an aristocratic family on the planet of Barrayar, and the book opens with his failure to enter the military academy there. In true heroic fashion, Miles is daunted by this setback, but recovers to go and visit his grandmother on Beta Colony, where he accidentally acquires a ship, and goes on to acquire a crew of mercenaries, retake an asteroid mining factory from invaders, gather an entire mercenary fleet, break a military blockade, and go on to beat charges of treason and uncover corruption among the ruling class of Barrayar.

Did I mention he’s seventeen?

Written down like that, it sounds faintly ludicrous, but as you’ve guessed given these books are hugely successful award-winners and there are many of them, Bujold carries it off. It’s mainly because of Miles, whose point of view we follow for the whole book. He might be a priveleged child of the upper classes, he’s also disabled, and fails to enter the academy when he breaks both legs due to his own physical shortcomings but also out of frustration and pride. He’s in love with Elena, the daughter of his faithful bodyguard Bothari, and the early chapters are filled with his flowery descriptions of her shining hair, long-legged beauty, etc, etc, to an extent which might be annoying if it didn’t remind us of Miles’s youth, and it if weren’t neatly subverted by the way it doesn’t all work out in the end. Elena herself is also well-drawn, with her own story and agency, and gets to escape her social standing and become the brave warrior and leader that Barrayan society would never let her be (albeit as second-in-command to a man).

It rattles along just on the right side of ludicrous for a while. Miles just happens to turn up in the right place to end up with a ship and a pilot, but since that sets the rest of the plot in motion, it can be forgiven. While there’s a lot of luck involved in Miles’s success, it’s backed up by audacity and nerves, and since we always see Miles’s side of events, we can see exactly how close it is to all falling apart. Miles grows into his new role as “Admiral” Naismith of a mercenary fleet without becoming instantly self-assured and able to cope, and suffers moments of doubt and black depression. While his aristocratic upbringing helps, he couldn’t bluff his way through his adventures without his own intelligence and knowledge of human nature, and the help of Elena, Bothari, and a host of other characters he picks up along the way.

Still, I might have written it off as merely an entertaining bit of military space opera, except for the turn it takes about two-thirds of the way through, when a dangling plot thread about the identity of Elena’s mother pays off in an unpleasant and gruesome way, and hints at a deeper story involving Miles’s father, a past war, and the whole Barrayaran military. The last third of the book returns to Barrayar and the complex political state of the empire, and it’s far more intriguing than the mercenary plot of the middle of the book. It comes close to info-dumping when Miles’s cousin turns up, as Ivan is quite dim compared to Miles and therefore good for Miles to explain the working of the plot to, but the ending is just about saved from being too neatly wrapped up by what Miles’s father has to do to save him from charges of treason, and by the interesting glimpses into the workings of the court and the Emperor himself.

It’s not a brilliant work – the writing is often clumsy, and too many lines are said adverb-ly. I got stuck on lines like “He came to a species of attention, querying his bodyguard with puzzled eyes”, and a character exclaims at a pivotal moment, “I love you as I love breath [...] but I can’t be your annex”. Yes. Still, I know there’s an awful lot of love for these books, I hear the prose gets better, and even if the rest of them don’t bring interstellar political and military intrigue, they may work on a Sharpe-in-space level, and that’s not such a bad thing to be.