Sunday, November 30, 2014

And there will come soft rains....

Once again, I find myself trying to figure out why I like Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's Long Earth series so much, given that there is no real overreaching plot, more just vignettes chronicling specific characters as they cross and recross several different iterations of Terra. (Or in the case of the latest installment, The Long Mars, Mars.)

In this case, we're still following Joshua Valiente as he investigates those who are evolving out of the Long Earth, Sally Linsay as she and her father cross "The Gap" to Mars, and Maggie Kauffman as she leads a crew out to Earth West 250 million. Lopsang is less of a presence in this entry, although he does have an overarching narration to try to tie together the disparate plot threads.

Joshua's narrative involves what may or may not be a new speciation of humans, the youth who call themselves "The Next". We encounter them in both Joshua's tale and in  Maggie's journey when she fings the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald Neil Armstrong I. In Joshua's case, this involves dealing with a child he met in Happy Landings a few years back (Happy Landings being a very high numbered Earth West where people who fall through the soft places tend to wind up... It's also one of the few places trolls and humans live harmoniously.) He's on hand to witness as the the USLONGCOM (Basically what's left of the US government military operations, now relocated to Madison West 5 after the Yellowstone volcano pretty much wrecks havok on Datum Earth) takes "The Next" prisoner and puts them in isolation at Pearl Harbor on Datum Earth.

Maggie's voyage focuses on the variety of of life as it evolved elsewhere in the infinite Earths, and provides tales of human compassion missing elsewhere. Maggie is kind of the conscience of humanity in this. She takes a Beagle (sapient bipedal dogs introduced in the last book) onto her crew along with several trolls. This leads to revelations on why the Beagles really dislike some of the human scientists in their world. She tries to find a way to get medical help for a creature someone shoots at (through a window) in the really high numbered Earths. And she's the one who ultimately gets to decide the fate of the Next after running across a group of them from Happy Landings way out in the 200 millions.

Sally, who's not exactly happy with her father, none the less accompanies him to Mars. "The Gap" (the first iteration of Earth going West where there is no Earth [likely caused by an asteroid collision early on]) has a Mars with vegetation. (The idea that gets relayed here is that as life crossed the gap, DNA managed to hit Mars. There's also the idea that variations on Mars had the right volcanic melting of ice that allowed life to flourish for however long.) Their journey finds that there is life on "Joker Marses", where the conditions for life are still being met or have been met previously. And ultimately, their journey os one of trying to figure out if the ends justify the means. Yes, "Step Day", unleashed by Willis, wound up being a net positive, but the cost of life was very high. The sacrifices he makes on Mars looking for something specific may also have similar benefits for humanity, but there's an equally large sacrifice made in the process. The comparison to Greek mythology's Daedalus is made about Willis Linsay, which seems rather fitting in the end.

It's not a terribly long book, but it's fun to read. And it does seem to capture the essence of humanity in all of its narratives, capturing moments of fear, hatred, hope, and joy.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Go then, there are other worlds than these....

So, many moons ago, my friend Steve recommended I read Walter John Williams's Aristoi. It took a bit of doing, since the book is theoretically out of print, but I did find both a digital copy and a used paperback. The digital copy comes with a warning that formatting doesn't allow for one of the more interesting aspects of the print copy, which is the occasional section wherein Gabriel, our main character is doing one thing on the left hand side of the page, while he and his daimons and Reno unit all converse in a parallel column. It's a unique trick that does take more than a little adjustment when it happens.

Gabriel is one of the vaunted Aristoi, which could best be translated as royalty among the humans who have long since expanded out from Earth 2 (that's Earth to the second power, but I can't find the exponential on the character map) following the death by nano of Earth 1. Each Aristoi makes a domain out among the stars, running it as he or she sees fit. Pretty much everyone, not just Aristoi have Reno units (implanted in the thyroid, if I translated the Greek right) that connect them with oneirochron, which is more or less a virtual reality version of the internet. (The machine itself is called Hyperlogos, and it's said that Luna was long ago turned into a server.) Some rule as tyrants, some, like Gabriel, are more or less benevolent despots. Gabriel seems fairly content to create his planets, then let the people do as they wish. Mind you, his mother runs a church with Gabriel as the Godhead, but hey....

Gabriel is also seemingly bisexual (and a bit free with his morals), which we learn early on as he impregnates one of his boyfriends in Chapter 1. Mind you, later on we get a scene in which he has sex with his female doctor while his "avatar" in the oneirochron has sex with one of the female Aristoi. (Given this is done with the split prose mentioned up above, it's a

For the most part, the Aristoi spend much of their time debating philosophy and creating domains that reflect their ideals. Gabriel spends much of his time sleeping around and writing music.

(Something I neglected to mention up above is what a Daimon actually is. Basically, everyone has multiple personalities that get modulated by their Reno unit, which allows or much in the way of multitasking. One can run off and compose poetry while another builds warships.)

As the book progresses, we eventually get drawn into a plot by another Ariste out in the Gaul sphere who seems to be compromising the Hyperlogos. Gabriel winds up building a large spaceship, loading it up with collegues and lovers and heading out to the sphere. What he finds there goes against what his society believes in.

Without going much further into this, mainly because the Gaul sphere makes up most of the last 3rd of the book and contains one whole host of contradictory philosophy, torture, and quite a bit of violence.

It's a very interesting read. Based on the Goodreads reviews, this book falls into a love-it-or-hate-it category. While I wouldn't exactly say this is the best book ever, it's one I see re-reading at some point, since a re-read would probably be less distracted with all the the tech running rampant throughout the book.

One very major issue is that the science never really gets explained, although that never really affected Star Wars or Star Trek. However, most folks will be questioning exactly what magic is in use to make a journey of 40 light years in under 4 months, or how the heck VR internet is done in Real Time across a distance as vast as the galaxy. I hear Neil Degrasse Tyson making twitter comments from here. However, much like the adjustment to the oneirochron and the fact that everyone keeps taking on postures and making mudras like a kung fu movie, it's easy to forget this and just enjoy the story. Particularly since the themes of "What makes us human?" and "What's the next step in our evolution?" are facinating to me.

The ending is a bit open ended, which makes me sad that Williams never returned to this world. I would love to see what happens next in Gabriel's life.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hakuna Fthagn

So, I finally finished a book I've been waiting to read for quite some time, and other than a few quibbles, I rather enjoyed it.

R. S. Belcher returns to Golgotha, Nevada, in late November of 1870. Well, minus a small prologue a bit earlier, involving a certain dinner party in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A special party, where the dinner menu includes long pork.

Anyway. Welcome to The Shotgun Arcana.

When we actually get to Golgotha, following the aftermath of the Donner Party and Biqa (nee Malachi Bick) and Raziel (nee Ray Zeal) having a minor tiff about the source, we join Deputies Jim and Mutt chasing down a vampiric lizard that likes to prey on goats. Which leads into discovering the body of a dead lady of negotiable virtue outside the Dove's Roost brothel. Well, not exactly a body, as someone has rather artistically arranged the interior of her to suit some kind of pattern.

We also have returning characters from the first book, Augustus, now married to Gillian, despite Clay building a new body for Auggie's dead wife, who's head is being kept alive in a jar. Maude and her daughter are still female warriors of Lilith; however, Maude and Mutt (the Indian coyote shapeshifter) are stepping out and Constance is sweet on Deputy Jim. Sheriff Highfather gets a minor love interest of his own with the arrival of Kate, who works for the Feds. We also have Black Rowan, who takes over the prostitution rackets in town, having retired from Barbary Coast pirating. Mayor Pratt is still in love with Ringo, but still not up to admitting to the relationship, since everyone is still keeping an eye on him in his new role of Defender of the Faith, since he wields the Sword of Labon. Malachi has a surprise of his own as his daughter Emily arrives on the coach.

There's a heck of a stew of gods and legends wandering through these pages, but unlike the first book, Malachi gives a better explanation to Emily about how so many things can fit in such a small place. (Short version: God is too big to wear just one face. It's much more detailed, but that works for the time being.)

The main plot, after all the subplots start coming together really starts picking up towards the middle, when Ray Zeal and his Praetorians ride towards Golgotha. Throughout the first half, we meet people who have teeth scattered from the skull in the prologue. All of whom are vicious killers, assassins, and cannibals. The skull was Raziel's to guard, and he abandoned it to Biqa. Now he wants it back. It becomes quite a ride, particularly as our protagonists all meet their opposite numbers among Raziel's forces.

A few scenes really stick out for me. When Maude, Black Rowan, and Kate meet for the first time, one can almost hear Fergie's cover of "Barracuda". It's less Maiden, Mother, Crone and more Lawful, Neutral, Chaos. Another involves the lynch mob that forms when people see Mutt stepping out with a white woman and Pratt rides into the rescue. Given Pratt and Mutt aren't exactly friendly, the conversation on what they have in common (society not particularly liking them for whom they love) is very telling and touched a nerve in me.

The resolution of the main plotline is satisfying, although the wrap up had one place that was like biting tinfoil. On the other hand, there are new threads for another book of Golgotha, and I look forward to returning.