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.

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

A Stranger in Olondria
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t run across much literary fiction when perusing the SF/F aisles. There’s something about genre fiction that tends to attract simpler writing styles with punchy plots. And that’s not a bad thing: I like punchy plots and engaging writing.

But sometimes it’s nice to have something a little meatier too. And if that meatier book finds itself in a genre where it has a bunch of conventions to play with, that’s all the better.

This book satisfies the desire for literary fiction. And it has some fantasy elements — it exists in a made-up world with made-up geography and made-up languages and customs and there’s a hint of magic — but it’s only barely a fantasy book. The magic is mostly spiritualism and is enough to let it appear on SF award lists, but it should appeal to folks who don’t necessarily like ogres and trolls and wizards.

In place of a strong plot, it is instead a love letter to books and the written word with a simple plot placed around that. The main character does things (though, mostly, is carried along as things happen to him) but the book isn’t really about that. Instead, the book is really about the stories and songs that he hears as he moves through the world.

The language is, in places, beautiful. But that’s also where I find fault with the book: often, the writing feels like it’s trying to hard and goes over the line into the hard-to-understand.

I think this is a good book. I think it’s an important book. I think SF needs more books like this alongside the Old Man’s Wars and Wheel of Times. I hope that Sofia Samatar writes more genre books because I’d like to read them.

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Kanban in Action
Kanban in Action by Marcus Hammarberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We’ve been using Scrum at work for several years now — and we’ve had a lot of success with it. But recently, the team I’m on has started to notice that (for various and unnecessary reasons), our workload is not as amenable to Scrum as it used to be. So we’re starting to talk about looking for something else and Kanban is the most obvious starting point.

Skimming Wikipedia had given me a rough idea of what Kanban was, but this book filled in the details in a breezy, entertaining, and enjoyable-to-read fashion. It uses comic illustrations and interactions between a fictional team who’s trying out Kanban to highlight the sort of situations that come up when using Kanban and how to deal with them.

In particular, this book heavily emphasizes the idea that Kanban isn’t a system or process so much as it is a set of principles and rough guidelines. Because it’s not itself a process, you can implement Kanban on top of whatever process you’re currently using — something I’ve not managed to glean before.

My one criticism of this book as that all of the examples are far too neat. In the real world, I’d expect you to run into far more gray areas that aren’t handled quite as easily the ones the book’s imaginary team faces. In particular, I’d have liked to see some examples for adding Kanban to an existing Scrum workflow — the authors point out that this is possible several times, but never really get into what that means. Too often, they just shrug their shoulders and say “It depends”.

I guess that’s what consultants are for. But if you’d rather do some reading instead of (or before) paying those consultants, this book is probably not bad place to start!