THE RED: FIRST LIGHT by Linda Nagata

Official plot:  Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear.

OK, folks, this is a military sci-fi story set in something like today, and …. you ladies will love this … it is written by a woman.  It was originally an indie-published book but has been re-released by a major publisher. Does my heart good to see women sci fi writers get the notice they deserve.

So, like I said, not just a sci-fi, but a military sci-fi, and what the heck was I doing reading this?  My Dearly Beloved downloaded it and since we share an Amazon account, whatever he downloads shows up on my Kindle, too.  So I started reading it thinking it was …. well, I don’t know, I just started reading it, and found it kinda hard to put down, frankly.

It is kind of cyberpunkish, I guess, because Lt. Shelley has implants in his head, and their suits are like exoskeleton things, and they have all these nifty weapons.   They get caught in a surprise attack, and Lt. Shelley gets his legs blown off, but not to fret, Gentle Readers, they have a new experimental deal where they attach prosthetic  legs right to the bone and muscle!!!,  (which my amputee Dearly Beloved would truly prefer, since his above-the-knee prosthesis weighs a friggin’ ton.)   So after getting his cyborg attachments, back he goes into a secret and very dangerous mission.

Because, here’s the thing, it is getting known that he gets these feelings,  that warn him of coming bad stuff, and one of his team calls him King David, (you know, how God spoke to King David and helped him win battles? Not the part where King D. sent his best friend into combat to die so he, King D., could have the wife.  Not that part.)  That he has these warnings is starting to get around, and rather than think it is God or some alien, it is suspected that it is a computer programming hack, that possibly arose on its own out of a collection of marketing and inventory programs.  An emergent program, if you will.  However, others think it is  defense-contractor designed program, because as we all know, if there are no wars, DCs don’t make any money.

One interesting aspect of the storyline, interesting because I keep trying to ignore it here in R. L., is that the defense contracting industry went from supporting government declaring war, to figuring out they would do better by buying the congress so that the congress would find new places to hold a war, and then….. it occurred to them they could bypass the middleman Congress altogether and start wars all by themselves.

It was just a great read, and I am glad I stumbled onto it.  There is a sequel, but as the storyline gets more into conspiracy theory and farther away from It Was Aliens, I am less interested.

Oh, and the title comes from a major player who believes Satan is behind all the problems, and says that the Devil is everywhere.  He is the red stain bleeding through into all the affairs of Men.   People have started referring to the hacking as the red stain, or simply, the red.  I found that interesting, because the Spanish word for network is red.   Synchronicity.

I still hope its aliens.

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THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA by Teresa Medieros

When did this come out?  2003?  Yep, that’s me, on the cutting edge, right up there at the release party.  Actually, we watched the movie not too long ago, also a smidge behind times, and since I never read the book, I thought I would read it to see how much the movie differed from the book.  I saw an interview with Meryl Streep in which she said the movie was based on the book, but not exactly like it.

I found it an easy and fun read,  and that the movie was very much like it and in the spirit of it.  The difference was in the realization of the soul-selling aspects for the Andrea character.  In the movie, it was more believable, and darker, and realistic.  In the book,  Emily comes down with mono and is forbidden by her doctor to leave her apartment for a number of weeks, because she is very sick and very contagious.  She is the one who tells Andy that she (Andy) must go to the Paris show in her place.  It is not the traitorous act that it is in the movie.  Andy  has a BFF who has become an alcoholic, and while she is in Paris, the friend gets into a car accident and is in a coma and her parents and boyfriend call her in Paris expecting her to rush back to New York, while Andy is sure doing so will cost her her job and career.   So the big thing is does she stay or go?

That whole situation felt very contrived.  I mean, three more days and she would be coming back anyway.  The girl is in a coma.  Family and friends are already there for her.   The movie situation  felt more like the true moral dilemma that it was.   So for me, the movie was an improvement over the book.

And Meryl Streep.  And Stanley Tucci.  The others, eh.  They were fine.  But Meryl Streep. And Stanley Tucci.  Yeah, baby.

A STAB IN THE DARK by Lawrence Block

Number 3 in the Matt Scudder slightly noir mid century detective series.  Look at that, I got it all in one sentence.  In this mystery, Louis Pinell, the recently apprehended Icepick Prowler, freely admits to having slain seven young women nine years ago — but he swears it was a copycat who killed Barbara Ettinger.    Matthew Scudder believes him. But the trail to Ettinger’s true murderer is twisted, dark and dangerous…and even colder than the almost decade-old corpse the p.i. is determined to avenge.

That was the official less-than-helpful plot description.  The blurb writer must be getting bored.

Mz Ettinger was stabbed by a sharp object, looked like probably an ice pick, ten years ago.   A criminal confesses to the killing of several other unsolved ice-pick murders, and since Ettinger’s murder looks the same, don’t investigate thoroughly, assuming it is the work of the confessing criminal, even though he swears! he didn’t kill her, that it was not his work.   Ten years later,  the murdered woman’s  father, a well-heeled  lawyer approaches our boy Scudder and asks him to look into the old case.

Scudder manages to scratch up some leads, all the while continuing to battle his worsening alcoholism.  Did you guess that in fact the woman was NOT murdered by that criminal guy?  You would be right.  But I am not telling you who did the stabbing.  I am withholding out of spite, because I did not figure it out.  Yeah, I have a mean streak.

 

Do people still use these?

THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

This is a stunner of a sci-fi /fantasy/thriller,  a huge chunk of a book.   It is a science fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic world crippled by the ‘Go-Away War’, and ….

But let me preface all of this with some quantum physics, because unless you have a frail grasp of the theory on which is it based, you will still enjoy the book, but not nearly so much, and it might leave you scratching your head a bit going  Heh?     OK, ready?  One of today’s more radical theories suggests that information is the most basic element of the cosmos.  If we knew the exact composition of the universe and all of its properties and had enough energy and know-how to draw upon, theoretically, we could break the universe down into ones and zeros and using that information, reconstruct it from the bottom up.   It is the information locked inside any singular component that allows us to manipulate matter any way we choose. Of course, it would take deity-level sophistication, a feat only achievable by a type V civilization on the Kardashev scale*. (Never heard of the Kadashev scale? Sigh.  See end of this post to learn more.)

From a quantum viewpoint, the positions of particles, their movement, how they behave, and all of their properties, give us information about them and the physical forces behind them. Every aspect of a particle can be expressed as information, and put into binary code. And so subatomic particles may be the bits that the universe is processing, as a giant supercomputer.

John Archibald Wheeler said the universe had three parts: First, “Everything is Particles,” second, “Everything is Fields,” and third, “Everything is information.” The idea is that the universe emanates from the information inherent within it.

OK, so now that you know everything there is to know about information theory, we can get on with the plot.  The Gone-away World is set in a post-apocalyptic world crippled by the ‘Go-Away War’.  It tells in first person narration the story of the unnamed main character and his best friend Gonzo Lubitsch and their experiences during and after “The Go-Away War”, a conflict that reduces the world population to 2 billion. The “go-away bombs” and similar weapons used by the belligerents were designed to simply make anything and anyone subjected to them cease to exist, leaving no carnage or wreckage behind. The weapons, however, produced an unanticipated after effect. The matter that had “gone-away” was still there but merely stripped of the information which formerly differentiated and defined it.   (AHA!  Now you see where your information theory knowledge starts to come in handy?)

The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out, but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings.This “Stuff”, as it’s called, floats around the world in great storms and pools in various locations. When it comes into contact with people, a process referred to as “reification”** occurs. The Stuff takes the form of whatever those present are thinking about. The results are often horrific. Apparitions, as well as whole individual persons, appear out of nothing. These people become known as “the new.” To combat the Stuff, the war’s survivors rely upon a substance called “FOX” which is produced by Jorgmond, a corporation, which, for all intents and purposes, functions as the only governmental authority by virtue of the constant and universal need for their product.   It is delivered through “the Jorgmund pipe”, which snakes around the globe and permits the population to live in a thin ribbon of habitable land banded on either side by wasteland.

The story begins with the characters in the “Nameless Bar,” a title that is a reference to the main character’s namelessness. The company they work for, the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company is hired by Jorgmund to deal with power failures and a fire that has broken out on the Jorgmund pipe itself, endangering the “backbone” of their world and their very existence. As the company sets off, the unnamed protagonist starts thinking about his past, from the day he first met Gonzo. It recounts his relationship with Elizabeth Soames, whom he meets as a youth studying martial arts under the tutelage of Master Wu. Wu’s school, the Voiceless Dragon is the mortal enemy of the Society of the Clockwork Hand. The struggle between the two eventually converges with the protagonist’s efforts to oppose the misdeeds of Jorgmund in the Go-Away War’s aftermath.

As if all that isn’t interesting enough to take up about a kabillion pages, (I told you it was a doorstop of a book),  somewhere about three-quarters through the story, we are hit with a real smacker, and I cannot tell you what it is because it would be a real spoiler.  But I will hint at information theory and reification again.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book.  LOVED it.  There are some critics who felt there were too many diversions and some felt it was too wordy and some believed there were too many characters, but I say, Fie! on them and their houses.   Any mash-up of   a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure is super-duper in my book.

BTW,  Harkaway is the son of John LeCarré.   You would never know it, comparing the two writer’s work.

  • The Kardashev scale was originally designed in 1964 by the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev (who was looking for signs of extraterrestrial life within cosmic signals). It has 3 base classes, each with an energy disposal level: Type I (10¹⁶W), Type II (10²⁶W), and Type III (10³⁶W). Other astronomers have extended the scale to Type IV (10⁴⁶W) and Type V (the energy available to this kind of civilization would equal that of all energy available in not just our universe, but in all universes and in all time-lines). These additions consider both energy access as well as the amount of knowledge the civilizations have access to.

First, it is important to note that the human race is not even on this scale yet. Since we still sustain our energy needs from dead plants and              animals, here on Earth, we are a lowly Type 0 civilization (and we have a LONG way to go before being promoted to a type I civilization).                Kaku tends to believe that, all things taken into consideration, we will reach Type I in 100 – 200 years time.

Type V. Here beings would be like gods, having the knowledge to manipulate the universe as they please.

** Because I have to tell you everything, Reification is making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete.

 

TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE by Lawrence Block

This is the second in the Matthew Scudder series.  I got into this series after having read Eight Million Ways to Die,  and decided a mid-century noir-ish detective series was just the ticket for those cozy times when I read in bed before turning off the light and counting zzzzs.

The official plot description:  Small-time stoolie, Jake “The Spinner” Jablon, made a lot of new enemies when he switched careers, from informer to blackmailer. And the more “clients, ” he figured, the more money – and more people eager to see him dead. So no one is surprised when the pigeon is found floating in the East River with his skull bashed in. And what’s worse, no one cares – except Matthew Scudder. The ex-cop-turned-private-eye is no conscientious avenging angel. But he’s willing to risk his own life and limb to confront Spinner’s most murderously aggressive marks. A job’s a job after all – and Scudder’s been paid to find a killer – by the victim…in advance.

OK, so Scudder starts his investigation by acting as if he had inherited the business, the blackmailing list of Spinner, and he goes to each of the victims in this pose, seeing what he can find out, who might have been tired enough of the game to want to take out Spinner and save him or herself some heartache, not to mention a lifetime worth of payment money.  Not a bad investigatory angle, and gives us insight into the blackmailees.

As we learned in Sins of the Father, his first in the series, Scudder’s alcoholism is going to be one of the central pillars of the stories.  So we get a tangle of detecting and alcoholism and denial of said alcoholism and little spurts of detecting genius and some interesting characters all mixed up into a colorful ball of a storyline.

So, maybe not as good  as Eight Million Ways to Die, but definitely still pretty good.

THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS by Arundhati Roy

This is the latest from Arundhati Roy, she of The God of Small Things fame.  It is a big, sprawling stewpot of a novel, that weaves together the lives of two main characters.   One strand of this giant braid follows Anjum, a hijra, or transwoman, struggling to make a life for herself in Delhi. The other follows Tilo, a thorny and irresistible architect turned activist (who seems to be modeled on Roy herself), and the three men who fall in love with her.

The book begins and ends in a graveyard.   Anjum lives in a multigenerational joint family of other hijras; together they raise a child. Later, she and a few other characters move into a graveyard. They sleep between the headstones, plant vegetables, create a new kind of human family that can obliterate the divisions between the living and the dead. This graveyard is the inverse of the Garden of Eden—a paradise whose defining feature, rather than innocence, is experience and endurance.

 

 

 

Conversely, we follow Tilo the activitist into Kashmir, and is a lot about the war in and for Kashmir, the struggle between at the time of this story, India and the Kashmir resistance.  It is a story of horror and violence and unimaginable cruelty, while the story of Anjum is one of a resistance movement of a different kind.   In the end, we see the two stories converge, somewhat unconvincingly, but by this time, we readers are so exhausted by the journey we are just relieved and happy to see an ending in sight.

The whole book is about resistance — the gays, addicts, Muslims, orphans, and other casualties of the national project of making India great again.   The book is filled with characters, but most of them, if not all of them, are  stand-ins for causes, which while not subtle, is still effective for this Western reader.  It is colorful, demanding of the reader’s attention,  and has something to say about oppression, resistance and hope.  Something we Americans can use right about now.

 

THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB by Louise Erdrich

Official Plot Description:  Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher’s precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis’s life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine’s life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.

Why Argus, North Dakota, you may  ask.  Because, that is where he ran out of money to travel any further west.  He sells his sausages along the way to obtain money for food and further train fare. And Argus is where he ended up.

Delphine, the only child of her single parent father — the town drunk and ne’er-do-well,  leaves home to make a career maybe on the stage, meets Cyprian, the absurdly handsome feller.  They create a balancing act, take it on the road, and eventually end up back in Argus, where she meets Eva, Fidelis’ wife,  who treats her like a mother would, and the two become fast friends.

The evolving events suck us into a mystery involving dead people in the locked cellar of Delphine’s house, a sheriff obsessed with the town mortician — a young woman who inherited her family business and can’t get a boyfriend due to her profession, a strange woman, Step-and-a-half, so named for her long strides, who wanders the town in the night looking for scraps and throw-aways.   And of course, the butchers singing club, composed of the town’s two butchers and a number of other men who like to sing.  Think Barbershop Quartets.

A lovely story, a love story, a friend story,  fun characters, a nod as usual for Erdrich to the Native Americans of the area,  and a description of life in the Dakotas in the period between the two great wars.  It is a story of pairs:  friends, lovers, non-lovers, enemies-no-longer-enemies, children-parents, life-death.

Just a fine book.  Gotta get me some more of her work.  Yessiressbob.

Oh, by the way, she tells us that the picture of the young butcher on the cover is her grandfather Ludwig Erdrich.  He fought in the trenches on the German side in WWI, and his sons served on the American side in WWII.