Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Book Review: Machinehood by S. B. Divya

Pros: brilliant worldbuilding, interesting characters, thought-provoking, international setting

Cons:

Olga (Welga) Ramirez only has a few months of shield work left before she ages out of it, which is why she’s ready to ignore the tremors her zips (enhancement drugs) seem to be causing. To placate her boyfriend, she asks her sister-in-law, Nithya, a biogeneticist, to look into it.

Protecting drug manufacturing funders from protesters as a shield is a semi-dangerous but rewarding and steady job in a world where most people can only find gig work. When a new protest group, the Machinehood, ignores the established ‘rules’ and kills the funder, leaving a manifesto behind, Ramirez realizes the world is about to change.

I really liked the two main point of view characters. Welga’s a bad ass former soldier who loves to cook. Her side of the story deals with the physical aspects of modifications. Nithya is the primary wage earner in her family which makes things a challenge when she discovers she’s pregnant and has to stop using the drugs that allow her to work. Her story is about juggling family and work. Her story also deals more with ethical problems. The book also has a minor non-binary character which was cool to see. And while the story shows that racism isn’t dead, this character faces no in text negativity, so maybe humanity in this future has progressed in that respect.

The worldbuilding was incredible. The amount of history the author created is mind boggling, especially given its detail with regards to politics, conflict, ethics, and most importantly science (with the development of mech technology, then bots, then zips and veemods). I also appreciated the differences in attitude shown by people of various ages with regards to the technology (as it changed) and privacy issues. Also the mixing of technologies - static and moldable items - was really cool, and showed that people adapt new technologies at different speeds depending on their wealth and rural vs urban positioning.

There’s a large emphasis on the gig economy and how having machines take over most physical work makes employment difficult for humans. Global warming also shows up in the form of climactic shifts in regions of the world (like Arizona being subject to repeated dust storms).

I loved that the book had an international setting with one major point of view character in India, major mentions of North Africa and Singapore, nods to China and Europe in addition to a fair amount of action taking place in the United States.

This book would be fantastic for book club meetings as there are a lot of interesting discussion possibilities, specifically around ethics, but also with regards to technological advancements and how things like privacy and the gig economy will change in the future.

I noticed in a few places the author gave the same information twice, in one case using almost the same language both times. This isn’t really a problem beyond the fact that the repetition was unnecessary and therefore a little distracting.

The ending felt a little simplistic given the complexity of the problems the characters are dealing with, but it did wrap things up well.

This is a fantastic book, alternating fast paced action scenes with slower paced visions of life. There’s a lot to think about in this complex possible future.

Out March 2nd.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Movie Review: Space Sweepers (Seungriho)

Directed by Sung-hee Jo, 2021
IMDb listing

Pros: good special effects, lots of action, quirky characters

Cons: some info dumps that were so quick I didn’t catch all the information

A misfit crew of space sweepers always low on cash, salvage a ship with a young girl on board. A girl the news reports say is actually a robot carrying a hydrogen bomb. Recognizing her value, one crew member suggests a risky venture.

This is a Korean film being distributed by Netflix. I absolutely loved how they handled language, with instant translators for the characters and subtitles for the viewers. It was great seeing a film that acknowledged the variety of human language and allowed that to be a feature.

The special effects were surprisingly good for a non Hollywood film. There’s a lot of action, and ideas brought up early in the film come back as important elements towards the end.

There’s very little down time to get to know the characters though. There was a scene where quick backstory for the crew was told in what I thought was a propaganda TV report so I didn’t pay close attention, but turned out to be legitimate histories. The information was also conveyed so quickly that even once I started paying close attention I still couldn’t catch everything. That wasn’t the only time in the film where I felt I was missing crucial information.

The characters were all quirky though I didn’t particularly like any of them until the end. I liked seeing a Korean crew and I thought they handled the robot’s quest for skin well.

The story wasn’t entirely original but it was told in an engaging way.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Book Review: Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

Pros: fascinating worldbuilding, thought provoking, interesting characters

Cons: could have used more explanation at times

Seske Kaleigh is fond of breaking the rules, dragging her best friend, Adalla, a beastworker, with her on adventures. Their society has recently moved to a new beast, and Seske wants to see the preparation work she’d normally sleep through. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s something wrong with this beast, but class concerns keep her away from Adalla, despite their feelings for each other, and politics keeps things in their society the same, despite the realization that they’re killing the beast, and through that act, themselves.

The worldbuilding is unique. The descendants of those who fled Earth centuries ago have learned to live on space faring beasts, twisting the insides into homes and stores, feeding on the creatures living inside it. There’s a lot of blood and ichor, so if body horror isn’t your thing you may want to pass on this. The closest comparison I can make is with Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion, though beyond the setting there’s no other horror elements here.

There’s a lot of vocabulary and cultural information to learn in the first few chapters but the author does an excellent job of introducing things naturally and at a good pace so you can really begin to understand what’s going on in this strange beast-ship. This world was so different and unique that I’d have been ok with an info dump or two (though I am honestly impressed at how well integrated the information was on the whole).

The family relationship organization is fascinating. Because the protagonists are younger, we only see this from their perspective, so there are 3 fathers and 6 mothers who make up a unit, and they are allowed 1 child between them. There are lines of who’s allowed to sleep with whom, but the book doesn’t go too deep into that. It’s such an interesting dynamic and I didn’t feel like I fully understood how it worked. There was one scene in particular where I felt like I was missing a crucial piece of information. It was clear that the character just learned something that changed how they viewed their parents, but I was left confused by what was meant by the conversation. A later scene seemed to clarify it a bit, but I feel that a bit more explanation would have been helpful at times.

The story is told through the points of view of two characters. Seske, next in line to rule their people, and Adalla, Seske’s best friend from a lower social class. Their friendship and attraction, and Seske’s desire to break the rules, gets them both in trouble and they never seem to get out of trouble. I really liked both of them at the start. I started to really dislike Seske as the book went on, as she’s fairly self-centered, and I wasn’t a fan of how she treated Doka. It quickly becomes clear that she’s not the best successor though she fights hard to maintain her position. I liked her again towards the end when she started making better decisions. Adalla’s journey was challenging but she remained a hard worker who cared deeply for others. Seeing her pain was unpleasant and I desperately wanted things to turn out good for her in the end.

There were a few times when it seemed like important plot developments were passed over too quickly or left without a full resolution. I was left with questions regarding Sisterkin at the end of the book. Similarly one of Adalla’s projects got a major plot beat and then was never mentioned again.

The author touches on class divisions and how people from one class don’t really see people from the others as human - like themselves. This goes for the ruling women of the upper class towards men and lower classes, but we see the men, despite recognizing their own discrimination, do this with the lower classes. Even among the working classes, the people section themselves off based on what organs they work with, scorning the others.

The book wraps up the main threads, but a sequel is coming soon that will hopefully deal with the fallout of the major decisions made in this book.

On the whole the book dealt with some heavy ethical issues and took place in a fascinating and unique world. I hope the sequel fleshes the family relationships out more.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

History Book Review: A Hangman’s Diary: Being the Journal of Master Franz Schmidt, Public Executioner of Nuremberg, 1573-1617

Translated by C. V. Calvert and A. W. Gruner

Edited and with an Introduction by Albrecht Keller and an essay “A Brief Account of Criminal Procedure in Germany in the Middle Ages”, by C. V. Calvert

This is a diary of the executioner of the city of Nuremberg in Germany. It begins with an essay by C. V. Calvert followed by a brief introduction to the diary itself. If you’re interested in medieval justice, the essay is invaluable, explaining the various people who worked at the prison, what a cell looked like, the various punishments meted out and for what crimes. The language used is occasionally archaic, for example the translator uses ‘incendiary’ where we would be more familiar with the term ‘arsonist’. The introduction goes over some information about the city of Nuremberg and the text itself.

The journal is edited, with occasional notes in brackets explaining that information has been cut (generally items in lists, for example with thieves, where 2 or 3 thefts are given details and others left out for space). There are also some notes referring the reader to other passages (when someone is let off and is later executed or if two people are accused and executed on different days).

The diary entries alternate between terse single lines, “A thief hanged” and long passages giving tantalizing details of the crimes for which people were punished. The diary is a bit frustrating in that you’re never given motivations for the crimes, and in some places I dearly wanted to know more of what went on.

On the whole it was a quick, interesting read.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Movie Review: Train to Busan

Directed by Sang-ho Yeon, 2016
IMDb listing

Pros: great acting, fast paced, tense

Cons:

Passengers on a train from Seoul to Busan try to survive a zombie outbreak.

This is a fantastic horror movie. The acting is spot on with a good mixture of people you’re rooting for and a few you’re hoping die quickly. There’s very little introduction to the main group of initial survivors on the train, but among them are a pregnant woman, two older women, several high school baseball players, and a number of business men.

The film focuses on two principle characters: a father and daughter heading to Busan for the girl’s birthday. While he loves his daughter the father is a distant figure in her life, working long hours and hardly aware of what she’s up to. As the movie progresses, so does his relationship with his daughter and the world at large.

The cinematography is excellent. There’s a wonderful shot when the zombie first infect the train and people are starting to realize something is wrong when the camera zooms in on one zombie and then follows it in a close-up as it starts attacking people. With pulse pounding music it’s a terrifying scene, showing the chaos of infection and confusion.

The movie is hyper focused on the train but you do get occasional glimpses of what’s happening in the cities they pass, through news broadcasts, texts, phone calls and scenery as the train passes.

If you haven’t see this and enjoy zombie movies, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Book Review: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Pros: great characters, excellent world-building

Cons: I’d have liked a longer epilogue

Ten year old Regan Lewis strives to be normal, so when she notices that puberty isn’t hitting her like the other girls she starts asking questions. Walking home from school after a rough day of bad choices, she finds a strange door and stumbles into another world, a world populated by various equine races. Her presence means their world needs saving, but Regan doesn’t believe in destiny, and doesn’t want to be a hero.

This is the 6th book in the Wayward Children series, but is a complete standalone novella. Regan has not been in any of the other books and the story is completely self-contained.

I loved Regan as a character and enjoyed seeing her start to question the world and her place in it. I thought the Hooflands were wonderful, with a well developed culture between the various hooved races (which includes centaurs, kelpies, satyrs and more).

While I’d have liked a longer epilogue showing some of the fallout of Regan’s adventure I understand why McGuire ended this novella where she did. It wraps up this particular story nicely, though I’m hopeful there’s a follow-up novella that continues Regan’s story.

The copy of the book I reviewed was an advance reader copy, so it didn’t have the illustrations by Rovina Cai. I’ve seen a few of them on the Tor.com website and they’re quite nice and I can imagine they help add to the fairytale quality of the story.

If you love horses and character development, this one’s for you.

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Video: The Impostor

Came across this hilarious video by Tom Ska last week. He's rated it 12+ for mild gore and strobing lights.
It's about the robot uprising in the future.