Friday, October 17th, 2014

Ancillary Sword
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ann Leckie’s debut novel won all the awards this year and was — by far — my favorite book of 2013. The sequel is well on its way to achieving those same heights for 2014. I had serious issues putting this book down so I could do more mundane things like sleeping or working. The characters and world, not to mention the prose style, sucked me in completely.

Though I’m still riding the high of having just finished this book, when I calm down a bit I might just find that the Radch (and surrounding environs) is my favorite fictional world. I wouldn’t want to live there (though, I *would* like to be friends with a spaceship…) but it sure is fun to read about. I love how rich and different everything is. Life in a decade on a military ship is completely different from the life of an officer which is, again, different from the life of the civilian upper-class which which completely oppresses the lower class. As Breq moves among people in these different social strata, the world around her changes in bot subtle and blatant ways.

The Radchaii society, even at its most abhorrent, is dynamic in a way that is rarely mimicked in other books. I’m not a writer but I suspect that if I were, I would be astounded by the level of skill that Leckie is bringing to bear on this dynamism. She makes it look so easy that I suspect it must be truly difficult. Wrapping it all up is a solid sense of well-rehearsed religious and nationalistic platitudes (along with a healthy dose of fear) that makes it all believable. Would any of us really be surprised to hear “No just act can be improper. No proper act can be unjust.” coming out of the mouths of some of our real-life thought leaders?

The idea of diffuse consciousness is still as compelling in this book as it was in its predecessor. Though this novel isn’t full of flashbacks from Breq’s past life as Justice of Toren, the Fleet Captain’s ability to parse information from Mercy of Kalr is similar. And while the story is never shown from her perspective, the discussion of Anaander Mianaai’s situation is just as interesting. I truly hope that a future book or novella or something will explore the world from the point of view of the Lord of the Radch. I’m certain that Leckie has the chops to pull that off and I’m equally certain that it would be fascinating.

So I unreservedly recommend you read this book (well, my one reservation is that you should read Ancillary Justice first, of course). It’s amazing and incredible and I loved it and even a day later, I can’t get the music of it out of my head.

That said…I am a deeply unhappy person so I can pick nits even with something as wonderful as this.

Sword is very clearly the middle book of a trilogy. Its primary function in that trilogy is to set things up for the exciting conclusion in the forthcoming (and eagerly anticipating) Ancillary Mercy. Much like many middle-books before it, therefore, Sword finds itself with a main character who doesn’t really do very much.

In Ancillary Justice, Breq was driven by a mission. She was under no illusions that it would be a successful mission, but it was still hers and the story was largely about how she moved forward (step by agonizing step) towards her ultimately doomed goal. In Ancillary Sword, though, Breq just sort of hangs around and tries not to make anything worse than it already is. Things happen around her and she reacts to them, but she’s not really working towards anything. This is quite a departure from Breq’s single-minded purpose in the previous book.

Another consequence of trying to set things up for the third book is that this one ends with a lot of loose ends remaining to be tied. There’s still an angry and unwillingly-cooperative ship to deal with. There’s still a dead Translator for which there has been no fallout. There’s still a mysterious “Ghost Gate”. There’s still another fleet captain who hasn’t been quite herself lately. There’s still an autocrat with personality issues. There are a lot of shoes waiting to drop but the book just ends. Of course, I have no doubt that the third book will be all the more exciting because Leckie has done the leg work to get the universe to this state.

The most troubling thing for me, though, is that Breq essentially never makes a mistake. She just plods forward deliberately and things mostly work out. She makes calculated risks sometimes and things mostly work out the way she thinks they will (i.e., poorly); but they were still deliberate choices. The closest thing to a mistake that Breq makes is near the end when she lets the Governor in on some suspicious she’s had. But even that is hard to count as a real mistake since it seems like the most correct thing to do in that situation. The Governor made a mistake afterwards but I’m not sure that Breq is really to blame.

I say it’s troubling mostly because I enjoy watching characters screw up and then fix their mistakes or live with the consequences (of both). That’s where the most interesting character moments seem to come from and the’re mostly lacking here.

All of these are minor quibbles in the face of the larger work, though. It’s marvelous and remarkable and a must-read.

Friday, October 10th, 2014
Link: An interview with Håkon Wium Lie
Hat Tip: Hacker news

The Second Amendment: A Biography
The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second amendment — along with all the ideas and proposals that surround it — is a contentions issue in America today. For a lot of single-issue voters, it is the single most important issue. As the gun manufacturers, enthusiasts, and the NRA flex their muscles, we’ve seen that they can use the Amendment to turn elections and control policy.

Growing up in America’s South, it’s always been axiomatic that the second amendment granted a personal and inviolable right for a private citizen to possess, carry, and use firearms. It has always been a little less clear if that right could ever have any restrictions placed upon it at all — usually a theoretical restriction might be allowed, but the one under discussion is always a bridge too far.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that a case could be made that the Founders did not intend the second amendment to confer an individual right, and indeed that this interpretation is largely the creation of relatively recent efforts to implant the idea into our collective consciousness — popular, legislative, and judicial.

Given my background, this is a fairly startling idea. Waldman, however, managers to argue that case competently and, with some caveats, has me convinced.

These caveats are fairly large, however, and are worth noting. First, and most obviously, Waldman is clearly approaching this issue from the stance that guns could (and should) be regulated sensibly. As such, he is no doubt biased to make the case that the second amendment protections for an individual are not nearly as strong as his political opponents assert.

Second, the impetus for Waldman writing this book was the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2008 that the second amendment does indeed confer the individual right that Waldman argues against. Since the Court is the ultimate arbiter of what the Constitution does or does not mean, Waldman is simply factually incorrect: the second amendment says that private citizens have broad rights to possess firearms. Waldman’s book thus becomes an interesting historical discussion about the changing interpretations of our founding document through the years. But its principle thesis, in a legal sense, is wrong.

I was going to say that I would like to see a good conservative rebuttal to Waldman’s premise. But it turns out that Justice Scalia has already written that rebuttal — and it is authoritative.

So instead of proving a point, Waldman’s book can instead be looked at as illuminating a path. If, as he asserts, a large contingent of special interests can rewrite history and create a right where there was none, perhaps a similar group can use similar methods to rewrite our society’s understanding of the second amendment once again. It’s a compelling idea: a revolution composed elections and books and academic papers. And, like the revolution that Waldman chronicles, it may be achieved without a single shot fired at the opposition.

Monday, June 9th, 2014
Link: Fraser Speirs on iOS 8 for Education
Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Neptune's Brood
Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a reason that much sci-fi (and most space opera) assumes easy access to faster-than-light travel. The universe is so vast that simply using physics-as-we-know-it ends up trapping the story on one planet — or, at best, one solar system.

Neptune’s Brood goes the other way though, and asks “What kind of interstellar society can exist in our universe?” It answers questions like “How do they travel?”, “How do they communicate?”, and — most importantly — “How does money work?”.

Economics lies at the heart of this book and I love it. By tying the story so closely with finance, Stross gives us a book that takes an extremely long view. The main impetus for the plot took place thousands of years ago and finally catches up with the characters’ present due to the amount of time it takes for money to travel between the stars.

This book is full of great economic ideas like new types of money (fast, medium, and slow), privateer insurance companies, “assault auditors”, and “the FTL scam”. But it also has plenty of the more pedestrian sci-fi style of ideas like re-manufactured bodies, galactic colonization, and mer-people.

Most surprisingly, this book had a lot of words I didn’t know. I have a fairly large vocabulary so it’s both surprising and enticing to have to access my Kindle’s dictionary as often as I did here. I regret now not keeping a list of the new words I was learning.

I loved this book and was excited by every page turn. In some ways, it makes me sad because it was so close to rating 5-stars. But it includes a few too many confusing action scenes (mostly chases, to be honest) that I found myself skimming over to get back to the meat. That probably says more about the market the book was written for than anything.

I believe that this is the second book that Stross has set in this universe and now I’m eager to go read the first. Anyone who likes sci-fi would be well advised to pick this one up for it has easily earned its Hugo nomination this year.