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“Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan

Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan is a British Science Fiction author whose first novel was 2001’s “Altered Carbon”, a science fiction murder mystery set on Earth several centuries in the future that quickly gained a reputation as a modern classic of the genre. Every science fiction universe tends to have a defining technological gimmick; in this case, it is the use of technology that allows a human mind to be digitised. A person's mind can be captured by equipment implanted in the base of their skull, retaining all of the person’s memories up to the moment of death (assuming that the equipment itself isn't damaged in any fatal incident). It can then be scanned in from the corpse (or from a living person) and transferred or stored like any other form of computer data. If a recently deceased person has enough money he can have his personality re-implanted into a new clone. Rich people also have regular 'backups' taken so that even if their body's own storage is damaged beyond repair they still have a recent record of the state of their mind.

The concept makes for a murder mystery with a difference. When a rich and powerful Californian businessman named Bancroft is killed, the police investigation quickly decides that he committed suicide. After his digital backup is installed into a clone body he refuses to accept the decision – claiming that he would never commit suicide and that the police are prejudiced against him. The man he calls upon to investigate the cause of his death is Takeshi Kovacs – a mercenary and former member of the elite UN Envoy Corps, a military unit feared throughout the galaxy for their effectiveness and ruthlessness. Taken out of a virtual prison and beamed across light-years Kovacs finds himself on Earth for the first time. He is faced with the dual challenges of a puzzling mystery and culture shock from the huge differences between Earth and the colony worlds.

Kovacs is a very charismatic character, despite his abrasive personality, obvious serious personality flaws and tendency for excessive violence. Many of his actions may be quite well intentioned, but he is a former mercenary with a very murky background and he is quite willing to shoot first (and second, and third and…) and then ask questions later. His investigations soon manage to irritate some of the more powerful locals, and he finds himself the target of assassins. However, Kovacs has an aptitude for combat and anyone who gets in his way would be well advised to have had a digital backup made recently. The supporting characters – such as Bancroft, his scheming wife and the policewoman leading the investigation (who is both a help and a hindrance to Kovacs) – are often intriguing, and although the actions of various characters may sometimes be reprehensible Morgan does provide some explanations for why they act the way they do.

The futuristic background is convincing and interesting, and although it has been influenced by past dystopian science fiction and cyberpunk, there is also a fair amount of originality. Like all the best science fiction mysteries the explanation for the crime is inextricably linked to the futuristic technology and society – although it does take a long time for the reader to have any clue about what might be going on. The biggest criticism might be that the plot does seem to ramble a bit, not until the end is the structure of the plot revealed and until then it mainly consists of Kovacs collecting seemingly unconnected leads and engaging in occasional brutal action set-pieces. There’s also a James Bond moment towards the end where Kovacs and the villain discuss the villain’s evil plot for a few minutes instead of immediately trying to kill each other. Early on it is also a bit difficult to care too much about the outcome – the effects of the crime on Bancroft are purely temporary and he isn't particularly likeable anyway. However, as the plot progresses it becomes clear that Bancroft is far from being the biggest victim of the events leading up to his death. In addition to the investigation, we get more than a few flashbacks to earlier incidents in Kovacs' life – from his underprivileged upbringing on a squalid colony world to a disastrous military campaign on Innelin. These flashbacks are interesting, and help to explain Kovacs' unique character, but they do distract from the main plot to some extent.

The action sequences are possibly the most memorable part of the book – although anyone squeamish might want to consider reading something else. The action is violent, uncompromising, fast-moving, clearly-described and sometimes more than a bit unpleasant. Kovacs' occasional outbreaks of idealism mean that he ends up being more of a vigilante than an investigator and the fact that some of his opponents are truly despicable does make it easy for the reader to support him, even if Kovacs isn’t necessarily a much better person than the people he is fighting against.

In summary, a fast-moving, intelligent, entertaining and ambitious science fiction novel whose only flaw is an occasional lack of focus.

Rating : 9 / 10


“Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss


Patrick Rothfuss’ debut fantasy novel “The Name of the Wind” was a huge hit when it was released in 2007 so there was a great deal of anticipation about its sequel, the middle book in the Kingkiller series. I thought the original book was highly entertaining although also with some flaws so I was curious about whether Rothfuss would be able to improve on it in book two.

I'm convinced that someday Patrick Rothfuss is capable of writing a superb fantasy series. However, I am increasingly doubtful that it's going to be this one. That's not to say the book isn't great fun to read, because it is - Rothfuss is a fantastic writer of prose and dialogue and even when not much is happening in the plot (which is quite frequent) the book is still entertaining to read. The plot has a lot of potential but ends up being a bit underwhelming and at times Kvothe's adventures do start to feel a bit formulaic. The overall plot of the series does have a compelling premise as Kvothe tries to track down the near-mythical Chandrian who killed his family, but despite the book being 960 pages long very little progress seems to be made towards that goal and at the end of the book little seems to have changed for Kvothe other than him learning a few new talents. Much of the first novel took place at the University where Kvothe was studying and arguably too many pages had been spent on his escapades there which were fun to read but increasingly repetitive and it is a relief when Kvothe leaves the University (albeit temporarily) a third of the way through the novel to go travelling. During his travels he is thrown into poverty for what feels like the hundredth time in the series, becomes an adviser to a powerful nobleman who wants help to woo a potential bride, attempts to find and stop a ruthless group of bandits, is kidnapped by an amorous faerie woman and is trained by the Adem, a civilisation of secretive martial arts experts. Some of the subplots along the way are definitely entertaining and occasionally surprising (for example, the extent of Kvothe's potential ruthlessness when dealing with the bandits or with a rogue band of travelling players) but few of the characters Kvothe meets on his travels are as interesting as some of the characters back at the University, although the enigmatic Count Bredon is one of the more interesting characters in the series. Kvothe’s time in the faerie world and his time among the Adem both seem to go on a bit too long and seem to rely on reusing a few fantasy clichés (particularly the Adem’s warrior culture). Kvothe is a slightly frustrating character as well due to his combination of being brilliant at most things he tries to do and being irritating foolhardy and prone to doing the worse possible thing at times. Despite that, he is charismatic and reasonably likeable, although I like the Kvothe from the framing story more than the one from the main storyline. Kvothe’s love interest Denna is also a frustrating character with her own secrets, I don’t find her to be a very likable character (I suspect she isn’t meant to be likable) but I can understand why Kvothe could become so obsessed with her.

When the series is finished I think there is some potential for this book to seem better when re-appraised. There are quite a few hints that Kvothe may not be the most reliable of narrators and the story might become more interesting if it turns out that he hasn’t been entirely honest with some of his accounts of various events. Close inspection of the story does reveal quite a lot about the mythological background of the series that isn’t necessarily immediately apparent, and even if Kvothe doesn’t seem to learn much about the Chandrian through the book there are quite a few semi-hidden hints as to what their plans and motivations are. The potential unreliability of Kvothe’s narration does tie in to one of the main themes of the series, the process of storytelling and how the storyteller can shape the story to match what they want to say and their perspective. It is an interesting theme, although it is questionable whether it is interesting enough to justify three very long novels exploring it, and it is slightly frustrating when Kvothe doesn’t spend any time on some of his escapades because he claims that they weren’t important to the overall story he is telling.

This is a good book that's a lot of fun to read, but it's also a bit disappointing because I think it had the potential to be a great book and a lot of that potential wasn't realised. Superficially it seems to be lacking in depth, closer inspection of the book does reveal more depth than is apparent at first glance, however I’m not sure there’s quite enough substance here to justify nearly a thousand pages.

Rating : 7½ / 10


“A Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin


Six years after the release of “A Feast For Crows”, 2011 saw the long-awaited released of the fifth novel in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. It arrived on a wave of hype and expectation heightened by the hugely successful first season of the HBO’s TV adaptation of the series.

I find this a slightly difficult book to really decide exactly how I feel about it. On the one hand, Martin's writing, characterisation and world-building is as good as ever and I enjoyed reading all 1000 pages of it. On the other hand, although quite a lot did happen in the book and the pacing didn't feel too slow the lack of any real conclusion to many of the plotlines is a bit disappointing - admittedly one of the plotlines does have what appears to be a conclusion, but based on past experience with Martin’s writing I'm not sure I believe that it is a really a conclusion. It's particularly frustrating because it did appear about three quarters of the way through the book that the Winterfell and Mereen plotlines were building to a climax but the book stops some way short of that. Of course, I don't expect book five out of (allegedly) seven in a series to work as a standalone novel, but the first three books in the series did have more of a climax than either A Feast For Crows or A Dance With Dragons did, and I think they were stronger novels because of that. I also suspect that if I drew up a list of the 10 best moments in the series they'd probably all be in the first three books, which is not to say that there aren't some great scenes in the book, there just aren’t as many as in the earlier novels.

I think Jon's storyline at the Wall and the political manoeuvrings as different forces contend for control of the North (as shown in Reek’s chapters) were the best bits of the book and they are the two plotlines where I'm most keen to find out what happens next. Bran's plotline is also interesting although he arguably doesn't get enough chapters and barely appears in the second half of the book. During the writing of the book Martin made several comments about having difficulty making the Mereen plotline work, and I think it is still one of the weaker plotlines due to having a lot of sometimes repetitive build-up and only a partial conclusion, Dany also seems to get less character development than other characters with a lot of chapters like Jon and "Reek". Away from the East and the North there are a few token chapters for Jaime, Cersei and the Dornish but not much progress is made in those plotlines, and I suspect they may have been included largely as a reaction to the complaints about some characters being completely missed out of the previous book. Griff is one of the more interesting new characters and plays an important role in an intriguing new plotline, but perhaps a bit more time could have spent on that part of the story. Tyrion's plotline is a bit of a travelogue which sometimes feels a bit contrived and many of the incidents in it seem a bit irrelevant in the context of the story as a whole.

I think the comments above may make it sound like my reaction to the book was more negative than it actually is. I did enjoy the book, and it was a good experience to be back in Westeros after such a long wait, and I suspect this will still rank as one of the best fantasy books of the year, but I think it still falls a bit short of the best books in the series, probably the fourth best out of the five, a little bit ahead of A Feast For Crows. I suspect any readers who may already have had mixed feelings about the series probably would not get much out of the book, fans of the series will probably still mostly enjoy it but may regard it as being a bit of a missed opportunity.

Rating : 8/10


“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline


“Ready Player One” is the debut novel by Ernest Cline, while it isn’t a flawless work it is quite an impressive first book and a consistently entertaining read.

The novel is set in 2040 in a dystopian America where decades of economic and environmental collapse have left most of the population, including the novel’s protagonist Wade, scratching out a meagre existence in the trailer park slums now dominating most of America’s cities. Wade is a geeky teenage who escapes from the horrors of his day-to-day existence using the same means as billions of others around the world, by logging in to OASIS, a virtual-reality online role playing game which has evolved into an immensely complex and detailed virtual world that has supplanted the Internet as the world’s primary means of communication and socialisation. Wade attends school online in the OASIS but spends most of his time in a quest to find an Easter Egg left by the game’s designer James Halliday. Five years earlier Halliday had died, leaving as his will a message that his vast fortune and control of the OASIS would pass to whoever managed to complete a quest he had left hidden in the game. There were few details about the quest, but Halliday had mentioned that solving the three puzzles necessary to find the Easter Egg would require a detailed knowledge of the computer games, RPGs, music and films that Halliday loved, mostly from the 1980s era when Halliday had himself been a teenager and had first began to realise the potential of computer games. As a result Wade, like millions of others on the quest, had spent much of the five years devouring every piece of media linked to in Halliday’s journals, from Dungeons and Dragons to Back To The Future, Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Pac Man. Wade quickly develops an obsessive nostalgic fondness for a time many decades before his birth which seems like an American Golden Age compared to his own time, and his knowledge will come in very useful when he comes up with a brainwave about what Halliday’s first clue means and where the first of the three keys he has to find is hidden.

I thought this was a fairly good book; it was a lot of fun to read although it had too many flaws to be a truly great book. Some of the characterisation was a bit simplistic - particularly the clichéd Evil Corporation antagonists - the story was predictable and there were a few plot holes. Wade and his small group of friends are likable characters but they’re not particularly deep or morally complex characters and most of Wade’s characterisation is quite predictable given his basic biography, although he does have a reasonable amount of character development throughout the book, his initial obsession with the quest for the Easter Egg continues throughout the book but he does start to become aware that there are other things that matter other than winning the contest. Wade’s narration of the book is entertaining and witty (although some of his attempted witticisms are a bit clunky), but when there is actual dialogue between characters it does tend to be a bit simplistic - which is understandable given that the protagonist is a socially inept loner. I think James Halliday is potentially the most interesting piece of characterisation, although he never actually appears in the flesh in the book. The book does seem quite ambiguous in his attitude towards him, while he may have constructed a wonderful virtual world the novel does start to question whether he used his vast wealth responsibly and whether OASIS for all its positive attributes might also be causing harm. I think it could have spent a bit more time exploring Halliday’s ambiguous legacy, for example it doesn’t seem to spend much time considering the bleak implication of the novel that very little that is genuinely new has been created since OASIS began.

I think the biggest problem with the plot was that the egg hunt didn't seem to be as hard as it was portrayed to be, particularly obtaining the first key - it may not have been easy (although the meaning of the "much to learn" clue was glaringly obvious), but it wasn't hard enough that millions of people would have spent five years failing to find it. In some ways parts of the quest might work better in a visual medium (apparently a film adaptation is being considered), since it is hard for a book to make compelling scenes where the protagonist spends hours playing 80s arcade games or re-enacts a classic film. There is some memorable imagery throughout the book, whether it is the bizarre sight of an undead sorcerer straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign playing on an arcade game or the climatic battle between Wade and his friends and his corporate-funded rivals being fought between giant robots from various cartoon series.

I think the setting was probably the best bit of the book, and the author did a good job of incorporating all the myriad references without having them get in the way of the plot too much, although arguably he could have spent more time explaining why the things being referenced were so great that they had such appeal decades later. While I am familiar with a lot of the 80s references in the books, there were a number of games referenced that I've heard of but never played and I therefore don't have any nostalgia about them, so it might have been a good idea for the book to explore exactly why people were so nostalgic about them that they would construct virtual tributes to them decades later, sometimes the nostalgia does seem a bit undiscerning. I don’t think it would be necessary to understand all the references to enjoy the book, although some familiarity with the things being referenced will probably make it more enjoyable.

In summary, this is a fun adventure novel that perhaps doesn’t have a huge amount of depth but its gleeful virtual reconstruction of 1980s pop-culture makes it a very likable book.

Rating : 8/10