Monday, February 28, 2011

Broken Angels

by Richard K. Morgan

I read Richard K. Morgan's Philip K. Dick Award winning Altered Carbon for the Sci Fi Experience two years ago and enjoyed it. While this is the second book about Takeshi Kovacs it is very different from Altered Carbon. Altered Carbon was essentially a noir detective story that just happened to be set in the future. In Broken Angels you meet up with Takeshi Kovacs embroiled in a war on a distant planet, working as a mercenary for a giant corporation trying to lay claim to an ancient Martian artifact, in the middle of a war zone. While it was much more of an action/war adventure, I was very happy that it explored the implications of the advanced technology laid out in the first book.

In Kovac's world people have stacks embedded in their spinal column that contain their memories and personalities and as long as your stack is recovered when you die you can either be "re-sleeved" in another body or exist in virtual reality. Because your consciousness can be put into a digital format this has interesting implications for torture, sex, space travel and warfare conducted by soldiers that don't die a "real death".

I also found the story line about the Martians fascinating. The Martians were long gone when humans discovered their cities and artifacts, but by using the Martian technology and information that they left behind, human beings have been able to leap far beyond their capabilities, especially in terms of space travel. I don't want to give the plot away but I found the entire Martian story line fascinating and hope that it is developed more in the following book.

I will definitely read the next (and supposedly last) Takeshi Kovacs book, Woken Furies, which is set on Kovac's home world, Harlan's World, and delves into Kovac's history.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

I had been hearing great things about this book since it came out in September of 2009. And the buzz only continued to grow as it won both the Hugo and Nebula for best novel in 2010. It also seems to appeal to people that do not normally read science fiction and even made Time magazine's top ten fiction books in 2009. Sometimes a book with all that buzz just cannot live up to its billing but I was really wowed by Windup Girl.

The story is set at some time in the future in Bangkok Thailand, after oil has run out, the sea levels have risen and plagues have decimated the world's food supply. Methane made from animal dung lights the street lamps and cook fires and kink-springs are used to power everything from boats and factories to guns. Computers are powered by the individual pedaling away at the treadles and bioengeniered beasts called Megodonts (as pictured on the cover) do the heavy labor. The primary means of transportation are sailing ships and dirigibles. While this may make it sound like a steampunk novel, I didn't really get that vibe from it, but I am no steampunk expert. My favorite part of the novel was the extraordinary future Bangkok, with sky scrapers built during the Expansion now crumbing and overcome with vines since electricity is gone but filled with people.

The primary interest of the novel is genetic engineering both of the food supply and of people and animals. Much of the food supply is tainted and has become deadly to eat while calorie companies control the food supply of genetically engineered crops. Engineered animals, such as the Cheshire cats that shimmer in and out of sight like the one from Lewis Carol's Wonderland, have almost obliterated all of the natural species. And the calorie men search for original genetic plant material to work their gene hacking magic. The Windup Girl of the title is a genetically modified humanoid created by the Japanese as a companion, secretary and translator for a wealthy businessman who abandoned her in Thailand where "New People" are illegal.

While the characters were fully developed and interesting and the plot was complex and fascinating, what I loved most about the story was the way the reader is just dropped into this complex world and allowed to slowly figure it out. To me the city of Bangkok is the main character and the large themes are the main plot devise. It is not preachy in any way but the author manages to create a frightening world that in light of our current state of affairs seems not really that far fetched. It certainly has made me look at "calories" in a new light.

The publisher, Night Shade Books, currently has free downloads of "Windup Stories" which contains two stories that are set in the same world as The Windup Girl, The Calorie Man and Yellow Card. I enjoyed reading them, especially since I understand that The Calorie Man was the genesis of The Windup Girl. I would however recommend reading the book first as it fully immerses you in this world and I think better prepares you to appreciate these stories.

And if you need more convincing here are some reviews from Cory Doctorow , SF Signal.

I read this as part of Carl V's Sci Fi Experience.