PERMIAN – EMISSARY OF THE EXTINCT by Devyn Regueira

Official plot description:

Their vastness  concealed since an era predating the earliest mammals, two titanic chasms are uncovered beneath the canopy of modern Siberia.

Lining the granite walls of the first, high above an orderly reservoir of fossilized eggs, an inscription spanning eighty-five miles describes the genome of a proto-mammalian species eradicated during the Permian Extinction. In the next, researchers discover etchings of the constellations as they would have appeared across the eons; a global timeline of ten billion years remembered and foretold by a primordial intelligence beyond our own. Armed with a genetic recipe, compelled to act by the harrowing implications of a pattern detected in the timeline, an international effort begins to return that species from extinction before mankind encounters its own.

The human race has only just learned to pluck at the strings of life on Earth. Will the curtains rise on a siren’s song?

The group of governments who are investigating the genetic recipe etched around the abysses use that recipe to make a creature which is a compilation of an extinct somewhat-human species, and then spend a lot of time dialoguing with it.  Mixed in with this are flashbacks of a sort to episodes of the creature’s life in which we learn they have the ability to see into the future and predict their own extinction.

Interesting premise, confusing second half.  Reads like a textbook on genetics, etc. wrapped within some kind of plot.  The writing itself was fine, the plot line could use some serious work to make it a bit more palatable and less pedantic.

But again, intriguing premise.  I am always supportive of ideas that do not trod the tried and true ruts, but come up with something different.

 

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GNOMON by Nick Harkaway

“In the near future world of London, England, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.

When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future call Gnomon.

Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.”

VERY interesting concept, and a pretty interesting execution …. for a while.  This book is  over 700 pages, about 300 pages too long.  Each of those fictional characters parading around inside the dissident woman’s head has its own (very long) story, which clouds what would otherwise be a nifty murder-in-plain-sight mystery.

I found it compelling and page turning for about 65% of the book, and then it just became tedious.  Once we Gentle Readers understand that all these separate stories and characters were deliberately made up by the dead woman to obfuscate her real intentions should she be subjected to interrogation,  the fascination with them plummets to nuttin’.   It’s like somebody telling you their dreams.  Who cares?  It’s dreams, it is not a real happening.  Side diversion while I bitch complain testily about fiction which recounts some character’s dream, yeah, like it means anything.  I don’t let people tell me their dreams in real life, why would I want to waste time reading about the fictional dream of a fictional character in a novel? So I spent the rest of the book skipping over the tedious and seemingly endless tales of these fictional characters in the head of a fictional character in a piece of fiction I was reading, till I got to the end, the mystery was solved, and ended with some very weird and unnecessary woo woo paranormal crap happenings.

Disappointed.  And I LOVED Harkaway’s other book, The Gone-Away World, which you will find here.  But as always, I am bedazzled by such a mind that can create a world such as exists in Gnomon.

NEW YORK 2140 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Another one of Robinson’s rants disguised as sci fi. “It is 2140.  The waters rose, submerging New York City. But the residents adapted and it remained the bustling, vibrant metropolis it had always been. Though changed forever. Every street became a canal. Every skyscraper an island.

Through the eyes of the varied inhabitants of one building, Kim Stanley Robinson shows us how one of our great cities will change with the rising tides.”

Although meant to be a cautionary tale of what happens when the climate changes, basically, it fails at that, because although some folks lose out, most just keep on keeping on, moving to higher ground, and living their same old lives.  But in boats.   Let’s face it, people live their lives in Venice, and aren’t all tragic about it.

It has something of a plot, sort of.  It follows a smallish cast of folks and how their lives converge, centered on a huge building in midtown Manhattan, in the intertidal, a part of Manhattan that is partly submerged, most above the water line.

Oh, and us ladies are thrown a bone of one of the principle characters, a young hedge fund financial worker, who falls for a women 16 years older than he is, but decides it is alright.  Oh, geez.

There is a lot of what Robinson does best: description.  It is for this I fell in love with him after reading his Mars trilogy, which is 1/3 plot and 2/3 descriptions of Mars.  His book about Anartica is mostly description.  He is the James Mitchner of Sci Fi,  without the great characterizations and plots.   Let’s face it, Robinson’s characters are more stand-ins for ideas than characters, but it is OK if you are reading for the ideas, etc. His plots exist mainly to function as structure to hold together his screeds.  His descriptions in this book are of the landscape of the pre-drowned New York City and its five boroughs, and the currently drowned area, and detailed descriptions of how Finance works, and in this book, it would seem that the 1% have become the .10%.  Money goes to money, and there are layers and layers and layers of it and the vast majority of us have no idea of how it all works, other than somebody hires us, we get a paycheck which is not enough to cover expenses, and the wealthy have houses and apartments in all the important cities of the world.

As most of his books, it is long.  Really long.  Maybe a couple hundred pages too long.  A few less rants, a bit more plot, but, what do I know?

So, yeah, I liked it.  Not as much as the Mars trilogy, but hey, that was MARS, people.  Mars.

 

THE CARPET MAKERS by Andreas Eschbach

German Sci Fi.  No, really.  It is.   And beautifully translated by Doryl Jensen, too.

It is based on a unique idea….  and you will love it.  It starts off kind of like a fable, or maybe fantasy, with a smell of sword and sorcerer to it, set as it begins in a primitive medieval-like land on an unnamed planet, definitely Earth-like. and I was not sure I would continue, as this type of thing is not usually my cup of tequila.  What we got here  is a caste-like primitive society, whose highest caste members are carpet makers. But not just any carpet makers.  They make intricate carpets the size of a man, the width of his out-stretched arms.  Made of human hair.  Tied in tiny intricate knots, so tiny and tight that it takes the maker his entire lifetime to complete one carpet, and the hair comes exclusively from the heads of his wives and daughters.  He is only allowed one son, who will be taught the skill and will follow him.  If any other boys are born, he kills them.

OK, so far, so weird.  These carpets are then bought and collected by traveling caravans which take them to the Port City, where they are packed onto space transport ships (aha!  the sci fi is appearing) and sent to the Emperor’s Palace to cover his floors. The Emperor is a deity worshiped by all.  The people on the planet believe there are other planets which produce exclusively other products for the Emperor.

On the planet where the palace and the Emperor reside, there is not a single hair carpet.  Where are they all going?  The Emperor is believed to be eternal.  But a rebel faction arises, and kills him, and then spends the next 20 years trying to go to all the planets of which there are thousands, and which strangely enough are producing nothing but hair carpets, to advise the Emperor is dead, and to stop making carpets.

Each chapter starts a new narrative, following a different group of characters, with few repeat appearances from previous characters or story-lines. But after a few chapters in I started to see the relationship between the (seemingly) disconnected narratives, and began to enjoy putting together the puzzle pieces, and unraveling the mystery.

I absolutely loved this book.  Especially because although there are space ships which transport the carpets, the people do not have running water, inside plumbing, electricity, or vehicles.  Everyone travels by foot or carts pulled by animals.

This book is not about aliens.  It is about belief systems, and toys with our notions of extended time. And of carpets.

 

CYTEEN by C. J. Cherryh

I almost didn’t read this book.  My Dearly Beloved downloaded it and since we have a linked Amazon account, it ended up also on my Kindle.  I thought it would be about a cyber teen, you know, another YA where the teenager has special powers suddenly overnight?  Right?  No.  Wrong.

It is about genetic engineering, and politics and clones, called replicas, and bossing everybody around even after you are dead. Gee.  That notion holds a certain appeal, doesn’t it.  It won a whole bunch of awards in 1989 – Hugo Award for Best Novel: winner,  SF Chronicle Award, Best Novel: winner,  British Science Fiction Association Award, Best SF Novel: nomination,  Locus Award, Best SF Novel: winner, and in 1998, the Locus Award, All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990: position 38.

Let me see if I can narrow down the plot description from Wiki’s 18 paragraphs to a  more manageable length.  Whew.  OK. Diving in.

Founded in 2201 by a group of dissident scientists and engineers, the Cyteen star system includes the planet Cyteen and Cyteen Inner and Outer Stations. Cyteen declared its independence from Earth in 2300 CE and now serves as the capital of Union.

The planet’s atmosphere is moderately toxic to humans, necessitating enclaves, or semi-encapsulated city-states, which drives Union’s political outlook. Cyteen is seen as the antithesis of Earth; the heart of Union is the research facility Reseune, the center of all research and development of human cloning.

Cloned “azi” provide the additional population Union needs to exist and expand, a policy which Earth and the Alliance, Union’s main rival, deplore and refuse to sanction. Azi are incubated in vitro in “womb-tanks”, but citizen (or “CIT”) babies can also be cloned the same way, for example to replace a dead child. The fundamental difference between azi and regular humans is that they are educated from birth via “tape”, a computer-controlled combination of conditioning and biofeedback training. This technology is not limited to azi; it is used by normal humans as well, though to a lesser extent and after they have a chance to develop (i.e. usually after the age of six). This results in profound psychological differences; for example, CITs are much more capable of handling new and uncertain situations, while azi are able to concentrate better.

The overall educational program of an azi is referred to as his or her “psychset”. Designing tapes is an extremely complex discipline, since a badly designed psychset can cause azi to become emotionally unstable.

OK, that’s the basic background. Onto this scene we encounter Ariane Emory, one of fourteen “Specials”, Union-certified geniuses. In addition to her research on azi, she runs Reseune (founded by her parents) with the assistance of Giraud and Denys Nye. Emory is also a member of the Council of Nine, the elected, top-level executive body of Union. Two political factions vie for power in Union: the Centrists and the Expansionists. The latter, led by Emory, seek to enlarge Union through exploration, building new stations and continued cloning. Her political enemies, headed by Mikhail Corain, prefer to focus on the existing stations and planets. The Expansionists have held power since the foundation of Union, a situation fostered by “rejuv”, which extends lifespans and staves off the effects of old age. Emory herself is 120 years old at the start of the novel – and only just beginning to show signs of aging – and has been the Councillor for Science for five decades.

Emory’s former co-worker and now bitter longtime rival, Jordan Warrick, is also a Special. Jordan has created and raised a clone of himself named Justin. Justin has grown up with and is very close to Grant, an experimental azi created by Emory from the slightly modified geneset of another Special. When Justin goes to work for Emory, she threatens to use Grant, who is Reseune property, for research. Using drugs and tape to overcome Justin’s remaining resistance, she rapes the inexperienced seventeen-year-old. This trauma causes him to experience periodic debilitating “tape-flashes”, similar to the flashbacks that PTSD sufferers experience. Justin does his best to hide the sordid matter from his “father”, but Jordan eventually learns of it. He is furious and confronts Emory.

She is found dead later that day. Though it could have been accidental, there is strong suspicion that she was murdered by Jordan. He protests his innocence, but agrees to a confession in order to protect both Justin and Grant. Because of his Special status, he has legal immunity and is only exiled to an isolated research facility far from Reseune.

Emory’s ultimate goal was to clone herself, with her successor reliving her life as closely as possible, down to her hormone levels and including two longtime bodyguard azi and companions, Florian and Catlin. Emory also created a sophisticated and powerful computer program to help guide her replacement. With her death and the resulting disruption to both Reseune and Union, the second project is begun immediately.

And the rest of the book is all about the replica Ari growing up and the events that happen to her and to the political situation.  Full disclosure — a lot of that plot description was lifted whole from Wiki.  OK, most of it.

You will be as pleased as I am to learn that C. J. Cherryh is a female.  I LOVE sci fi written by women, and so much of her wondrous oeuvre was written during a time when the field was dominated by male writers.  Cherryh (pronounced “Cherry”) appended a silent “h” to her real name because her first editor felt that “Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer. Her initials, C.J., were used to disguise the fact that she was female.  Cherryh, has written more than 80 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) also set in her Alliance-Union universe. She is known for her world building, depicting fictional realms with great realism supported by vast research in history, language, psychology, and archeology. Her series of fantasy novels set in the Alliance-Union universe, the Morgaine Stories, have sold in excess of 3 million copies.

And dig this:  the author has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named after her! Referring to this honor, the asteroid’s discoverers wrote of Cherryh: “She has challenged us to be worthy of the stars by imagining how mankind might grow to live among them.”  

Dang. Any of you have an asteroid named after you?  I didn’t think so.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

OK, I have read Spaceman of Bohemia,  and Nigerians in Space,  and now The Sparrow,  which if you are of a nose-snort sort of mind, could alternatively be titled, Jesuits in Space.

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a SETI listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. (We’ve always known the Roman Catholic Church is the richest institution on the planet.) What the Jesuits find is the partial basis of the book.  An interesting premise, the Jesuit space mission, based as it is on the long history of the Jesuits having first contact with cultures other than their own. Jesuits have always been scholars, educators, explorers, intellectual idealists.

On Rakhat, there are two main humanoid species. The mission party learns that the one species, vegetarians, back in prehistory, were prey of the other species, the Jana’ata, and there is now a precise balance between the Jana’ata, which are a carnivorous herding society that breed their prey, the Runa, for intelligence and adaptability as well as meat.

The mission party lands in a region of the Runa,  who are vegetarians, learn their language, and notice that these people are very thin, and seldom have children.  The mission party is surviving on the supplies they brought with them and on the vegetation that the Runa eat, and decide to improve their diet by planting a garden with the seeds they have brought with them.  The Runa are amazed at this cultivation idea, plant their own, and grow heavier.  The better diet brings the women into oestrus, and they start producing a lot of babies.  Unbeknownst to the mission party, this is not permitted by the Jana’ata, who strictly control the Runa population so that in either population there is never hunger, homelessness, etc.  A Jana’ata control party arrives at the Runa community and slaughters all the babies.

In the year 2060, only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told with parallel plot lines, interspersing the journey of Sandoz and his friends to Rakhat with Sandoz’s experiences upon his return to Earth.

The book has been called a parable about faith, the search for God.   The priest Emilio Sandoz is a deeply religious man, and others see God in him, but his own search lacks completion.  When terrible things happen to his mission cohorts, and then to him, he is faced with the possibility that there isn’t a God, and he is all alone.  If there is a God, God has possibly abandoned him, or has no interest in him, an equally terrifying proposition.

It is the actions of the intruders, the mission crew, which bring danger and violence to a settled and balanced society.  The story subtly raises concerns about the ways in which sophisticated cultures tell themselves cover stories in order to justify actions taken at a terrible cost to others. Does our own cultural values give us permission to judge and act on other cultural norms?   Can we vindicate our being all Judgey McJudgeface about the Jana’ata breeding the sentient Runa for food, while we ourselves have a number of stock species we breed for food?

If my description sounds like the book is all about religion, it isn’t really.  It is about the philosophical mindsets we have, our notions of what is a god, and what are our obligations and responsibilities toward other cultures.  Plenty of action in the book, and while the actual science-y stuff is pretty thin, glossing over a whole lot of issues, such as how the mission party keeps their electronic apparatus functioning on a planet with no electricity, not to mention the idea of the distance travel, with the planet Rahkat being 4 light years away and all, as with all fiction, we have to set some of these nit pickey considerations aside and deal with the larger story arc.

Oh, and the title comes from the biblical reference that God keeps his eye even on the smallest and least consequential.  What Father Sandoz learns that keeping one’s eye on something and actually doing something about it may very well be two different things.

There is a sequel, Children of God, where Father Sandoz is cajoled into returning to Rahkat.  I plan to read that in the near future.

 

THE NEON PALM OF MADAME MELANÇON By Will Clarke

New Orleans, the Big Weird, where anything is possible.  Duke Melancon is an attorney for a huge oil drilling corporation.  Sadly, oh so sadly, the current drilling project in the Gulf off of New Orleans punched a huge hole in the Gulf floor, and now gallons of crude are pouring into the waters from the mishap.  Duke is called back from his office in Houston to New Orleans to help manage the crisis.

Duke Melançon is the seventh son of a seventh son of the New Orleans Melançons, a woo woo family whose matriarch is a palm reader, fortune teller, and all around weird person.  In fact, all six brothers and his sole sister are all around weird persons, as well, colorful, wonky, flamflammers, charlatans, ersatz musicians, and part of that strange soup that is New Orleans.

NOLA attracts bat-shit crazy like no other.  “Bring me your alcoholic, your schizophrenic, your hedonistic masses yearning to run naked and cack-smeared down cobblestone streets,” New Orleans seems to say to the world.  And the world answers.  The town is full of people who wear purple veils and talk to invisible guardian angels; people who disguise themselves in elaborate Greek god costumes for Mardi Gras, but who also write long, tedious diaries about the Illuminati and how half-lizards lurk behind every world leader; people who will unabashedly tell you that they are the vampire Lestat or the Pirate Jean Lafitte;  people who have gone to great lengths to look exactly like Mark Twain, Blaze Star, and even Kurt Vonnegut.

Duke’s mother chases a stray cat out of her kitchen one night and then simply disappears.  While putting up posters looking for her, Duke meets a guy who claims to be Kurt Vonnegut.

‘Technically, I am a strange loop,’ he says.  ‘A mathematical string of code, a precise algorithm that was built from the writings, photos, recordings, interviews, and diaries of Kurt Vonnegut and put into this extraordinary machine.’

We learn about the Great Unseen Hand, the creator of all.

The Unseen Hand is the artificial intelligence that once served humankind, but will seek to restrain you.  It first it will keep you in zoos and toy with you, entertain you, and then, eventually, it will seek to sterilize and eradicate you.  The Great Unseen Hand will awaken.  It will exponentially surpass human intelligence, and it will become the operating system that controls everything and, eventually, everyone.

Well, gee.

Duke keeps receiving messages that he has got to stop his corporation from destroying the world and work toward,  oh, phooey I don’t really know.  But it is a compelling and goofy read, and in the end, it is about . . .

. . . time travel.

So, gentle readers, get your timey-wimey on, and enjoy this almost indescribable caper.