Monthly Archives: November 2014

Book Review: Player of Games (Iain M. Banks 1988)

In this review, I avoid spoilers, but since nothing really happens in this book for about 100 pages, that means some of the things I mention do happen a good percentage into the book.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Iain M. Banks Culture series is renowned for its great far future space operas and artificial intelligences. I like space operas and I like artificial intelligences, so I picked Player of Games as one of Iain Banks well-rated books on amazon.

I almost didn’t make it through this book. The main character, Gurgeh, is a professional game player who lives in a wonderful castle on a wonderful world with other people who like games and parties. They live in the Culture, the future civilization of humans (and presumably others) that is mostly controlled by artificial intelligences.

We don’t start the book with the Culture, we start it with Gurgeh. Gurgeh (whose name kept reminding me of Gurgi from The Black Cauldron) is famous across the Culture for the fact he can play basically any game and almost always win. The entire first 75 pages are consumed by Gurgeh’s ennui and partying. I hated these 75 pages.

Then the book picks up. We get to see more of the Culture, and eventually a different civilization called the Azad. The Azad are a barbaric people whose society rotates around a game called Azad. The Culture sends Gurgeh to go play Azad against the Azad.

This isn’t a book for character development or sparkling prose, it’s a book with neat ideas. Azad is neat, the Culture is neat, and the interactions between the two lifestyles was neat. The drones are interesting. I liked the Azad planet Echronedal, which is always on fire.

I really enjoyed the last 200 pages of the book; it was full of fun and interesting things. I want to read more Culture books in the future. But I don’t want to read this one again and I would recommend it only with the caveats above. I didn’t find the posturing and sparring in games that I didn’t know and didn’t mean anything to the protagonist either. But obviously a lot of people loved this book and probably enjoyed the early game play.

The people who recommended Banks to me compared him to Vernor Vinge, whom I love. I can see why people would compare the two, but Player of Games didn’t stack against my favorite Vinge books. We’ll see what I think about future Culture books.

Writing prompt: Jump forward in Nano and write (again)

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts. Find me on NaNoWriMo as Vironevaeh!

“For Nanowrimo: Jump to a new section and write” (Yes, again… I am just catching up after falling behind over the weekend. I’ll think of something more original next week.)

 

There was a knock at the door. It was Uncle Oraeus and a woman in a lab coat she didn’t know. “Jainus, just who I was looking for,” Oraeus said.

Jainus had a sinking feeling. Since she’d moved to the big kids house, she wondered when this conversation would come. She was growing up, and the other kids had already gotten to it.

“You’re old enough to have a Vitsen now,” Oraeus said. “You know what’s involved?”

Jainus nodded, but that didn’t stop Oraeus from explaining. “We’ll move your brains to your feet, and then convert your skull to an apartment for a Vitsen companion to live in. It won’t hurt. The surgical part is the easy part, really. Learning to get along with a Vitsen is the hard part. And you shouldn’t run for a while until you learn to soften your gate. Concussions are serious business,” Oraeus said nodding with his eyes closed.

Jainus was fighting enough to Jonnelt’s Vitsen Agartha, which seemed determine to make her feel inferior. It would buzz right by her ear when she was reading or say something unsettling. Jainus had always been told that Vitsens were advanced creatures, unknowably advanced. Creatures that had helped her people many, many times, extended her lifespan, and opened the galaxy for trade. Knowing Agartha, it was hard to imagine. Agartha seemed petty and spiteful.

“Do I have to?” Jainus asked.

Oraeus frowned. “You know you don’t, but you wouldn’t want to disappoint your family.”

Jainus sighed.

“You won’t always have a Vitsen.” Oraeus opened the door behind his own ear, showing the vacancy. “Just at this age, and occasionally when you’re older. As one of the favored families, it’s important that you start to understand Vitsens. You’ll find them really annoying at first, but you’ll get used to it, I promise. I even miss mine. We annoy them even more, I’m afraid. They don’t like being away from their mountain, you’ll learn. But they recognize they importance of the exchange, and so do we.”

Jainus couldn’t think of any way to say no. She nodded, then excused herself to go take a walk along the beach. The Vitsens’ home, Mount Vit, loomed to the north.

November means NaNoWriMo, but with a Twist for me

It’s November and thus it’s NaNoWriMo. Generally this means you write 50,000 words of a novel. I did that last year. This year I’m doing things a little differently. I’m going to do two 15,000 word stories and 24 illustrations. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words?

As of today, I’m at 7,265 words and 7 illustrations. That’s behind pace, but mostly due to a water polo tournament, which has a way of reducing one’s concentration to jelly for a few days (which is not unrelated to the shortness of this post).

I’m glad I did the traditional NaNoWriMo last year, to prove to myself that I could. But this year is about making the wonderful NaNo collective spirit work for me. I feel really inspired, and really excited about my eventual final product. I have two novel drafts that need reworking, and the prospect of another hulking chunk of words sitting around wasn’t very exciting. With the lower word count, I spend more time editing and creating a tighter first draft. I will come out of this month with something new to be proud of, which to me is the goal at the heart of NaNoWriMo.

Print jainus-pjs toys

Writing prompt: Jump forward in your Nano project

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“For Nanowrimo: Jump ahead to some future part of your story that excites you and write about that”

Gainarain went into the room. Jainus could hear him speaking over the link, but she couldn’t make out the words. They sounded serious, as Gainarain so rarely was. Everything seemed so serious these days. Terran sat next to her on the couch nearest the door and leaned against her, trying to eavesdrop as well, but also seeking company.

Gainarain stopped talking and came back out. “The queen’s been deposed,” he said.

“Deposed?” Jainus said. In an instant, too many ideas filled her mind. Was there still a monarchy? If so, who was monarch? And if not, who would rule and what would become of them? Terran clearly did the same calculations, she could feel him grow tense and adopt that wide-eyed look that until last week had been reserved for especially large insects.

Gainarain saw their faces and seemed to register their fear. “Oh, no, it’s not a coup or anything. By Terrigan, her brother,” Gainarain said.  “Things shouldn’t change too much otherwise, but of course it’s a big deal.”

They all nodded, but Jainus at least couldn’t calm down enough to figure out the ramifications of it.

“Why?” Dielel asked, dancing her bear around a miniature chair. She didn’t understand any of it, but she saw everyone else’s unease, which prompted her to ask questions.

“Well,” Gainarain said. He seemed uncomfortable. Jainus had a sense it was going to be something personal to them, rather than something for the whole planet. “Terrigan’s your great-grandfather. The next in line after him is your grandfather, and next after him is your mother.” He stopped as if the conclusions were obvious. To Jainus, at least, they were not. She looked around, confused.

Tempest took on a superior look. “We’re directly in line now, not some distant relation anymore.”

Gainarain looked pained. “Yes. So this means no more wandering off of the safe zone, and a lot more supervision. Especially right now, that we’ve been attacked and we’ve changed monarchs.”

Tempest stopped looking superior. “So nothing fun,” she sneered.

Gainarain rolled his eyes. “No, nothing fun.”

Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie 2013)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed me quickly, with tight writing and careful and intriguing word choice. The winner of both the 2014 Hugo and the 2014 Nebula Awards, the most prestigious in sci-fi, it clearly had this effect on others. Only on page 3, we get the wonderful phrase “She was probably male”. The novel reminded me a lot of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, with high space opera and sophisticated scheming. The protagonist, Breq, is a semi-human fragment of an artificial intelligence. I found Breq interesting in expression and nature, and she was easy to root for.

You will notice gender in this book. Breq is from the Radch Empire, where gender is not determinable from appearance nor is it important to try, and thus everyone, male or female, is referred to as “she”. Surprisingly, this totally achieved gender anonymity for me. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, all pronouns are male, which left me picturing every character as male even though some of them are physically ungendered. Perhaps because female doesn’t seem like the default pronoun, using “she” didn’t feel the same. We know that Breq is a female human and her companion Seivarden is a male human, but we don’t know the gender of most of the characters.

Unlike Left Hand, Ancillary Justice doesn’t dwell on gender. The Radch convention is what the characters use, unless they are speaking in another language, and that is that. We never find out why the Radch in particular ignore gender in a way that must have been a determined effort at that level. Have their sexual proclivities evolved with their language too? I wondered. In a way, not knowing answers to questions that had inspired such curiosity in me bothered me. But in a way, it was in keeping with the Radch Culture– gender wasn’t important there and it wasn’t important in the book, and it was my hang-up only that kept it there. Why did anyone’s gender matter to the story?

I suppose it’s strange to devote such a chunk of my review to something that the book doesn’t dwell on. But still, in the contexts of our language, it was a major choice on the part of Leckie. It makes my brain itch in such a delightful way.

The novel has several other nifty science fiction ideas. Breq’s current sentience versus her life as an AI is wonderful. Leckie uses music to characterize Breq in a way I really enjoyed. The Radch Empire is also pretty interesting, though it sounds obnoxious. They run around and brutally conquer and are filled with narcissistic oligarchs like Seivarden. The empire is run by several thousand clones of the same person, Anaander, who for some reason I kept on picturing as Edna Mode from The Incredibles, but that weird detail is almost certainly on me as a reader.

I ended up giving the book a 4/5, though I still debate myself over the rating. A book that I read in a day and a half because I was so enthralled, a book that still has me thinking a week later should be a 5/5. But I felt like the book didn’t quite come together for me at the end, like it was all sweetness and no substance. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or uncertain as to the outcome. That said, I would read it again, and recommend it to others. Read it yourself and see what you think.