ALL SYSTEMS RED BY Martha Wells

I absolutely loved this book!

The official plot synopsis:  “In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.”

Narrated in first person by the Unit, we learn his disdain for his educational packs, “I ran my field camera back a little and saw I had gotten stabbed with a tooth, or maybe a cilla.  Did I mean a cilla or was that something else?  They don’t give murderbots decent education modules on anything except murdering, and then those are the cheap versions.”    When asked by one of the explorer party he is guarding about his internal software, he responds ” ‘I carefully monitor my own systems.’  What else did he think I was going to say?  It didn’t matter;  I’m not refundable.”

When he finds himself concerned about one of the explorers, he muses to himself, “I don’t know why, because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.  When I do manage to care, I’m a pessimist.”

He spends his downtime watching the futurist versions of sitcoms, weekly dramas,  soap operas that he has downloaded, probably illegally.  He feels he has learned more about how to do his job from the action dramas he watches than from any of his internal instructions.   He gets annoyed when he has to direct his attention to the job he was contracted for.

Basically, the storyline is about an explorer party of the future equivalent of Green Peacers, on a planet which also has at the same time another explorer group on the opposite side of the planet, all looking for resources.  Things go awry with transmissions, and missing parts of maps, etc., and when they find they cannot contact the other group, they fly to that part of the planet to discover them all murdered by the same security bots who were supposed to be their security team.

But semi-interesting as the action plotline is, the real core of the book is its star, the narrator android.  Sarcastic, introspective, and competent, we like him so much.  Or her?  It does tell us that it has no gender parts, so I guess ‘it’ is the proper pronoun.

Three additional volumes in this series. Yee haw!

 

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BRIDE OF THE RAT GOD by Barbara Hambly

Chrysanda Flamande was the sultriest vamp of the silver screen in Hollywood, California, in the year 1923. Then an elderly Chinese gentleman warned her that a trinket she’d worn in her last movie had marked her to be the bride of an ancient devil-god of Manchuria.

A mash-up of the twenties Hollywood movie industry scene, old Chinese mythology, a bunch of made-up fantasy, and a mystery.  Da Shu Ken, the Great Rate of the North, the Kara-Kudai.  Bringer of plague, misfortune, and death.  He is not really part of Chinese folklore.  He is created for this book, so you can forget looking him up.

Ms. Flamande was given a fabulous necklace by her producer, a necklace supposedly from some ancient Chinese dynasty.  It actually belongs to the rat god and whoever wears it he claims as his bride and takes with him into his hell world.  So now he is after Ms. Flamande.  Her widowed sister-in-law who is functioning as personal assistant, and the nice guy doing the filming work together to find out who killed the handsome stunt man.

Lots about Hollywood, and Pekingese  dogs, of which Ms. Flamande has three, and who play a prominent role in the tale.  The further into the book you get, the more preposterous it becomes, losing touch with reality all together, and becoming a horror fantasy paranormal kind of thing.

Not a bad read, not quite a genre type I usually enjoy, but definitely very well done.   Must have been fine….. after, all, I read the whole thing, right?

SIX WAKES by Mur Lafferty

A fun closed-room space ship murder mystery featuring ….. ta-da …. clones!   The six person crew of a generational ship on it’s way to a distant planet, its hold containing 2000 sleeping bodies, and a bunch of mindmaps in a special computer, are abruptly pulled out of their cloning vats to discover they were all murdered.  And to prove it, there were their previous bodies, ripe with evidence and bleeding horrifically.

The ship, a-sail for twenty five years now, has suddenly been hacked, sabotaged,  the AI running the behemoth (about 3 miles long) not working, and the course has been altered, the ship is slowing down and off its original course.

Interesting ideas about cloning.  In this future time, cloning is for basically eternal life, not for multiplying oneself.  You can only have one clone going at a time, and you have to be dead.  You can, however, leave your estate to your cloneself, so you can see how this could be real popular.  It brings up the issues of the value of life, because if you can die and wake up tomorrow as your 20-year-old self, there is no thrill too dangerous, no drug too toxic, etc., etc.

The six crew members were all criminals with prison time awaiting them, or currently serving it, when they were offered the opportunity to crew this ship, with their records expunged at journey’s end and a new life awaiting them.  But in order to find out what has happened, and who dunnit, which none of them have any memory of, they must discover what connects them all, and what secrets each is hiding.

Great mystery.  Kind of light on the sci aspect of the sci fi, and heavy on the cloning ideas, so don’t ask too many questions about how this approximately 100 year journey is being accomplished, and how an AI runs a ship.  No astro physics but lots of philosophizing.  I loved it.

It got a Hugo nomination, but frankly, much as I liked it, didn’t quite seem Hugo-quality, but what do I know?  Anyway, mystery, space, clones.  What’s not to like?

 

 

 

THE PAYING GUEST by George Gissing

George Gissing  was an English novelist who published 23 novels between 1880 and 1903.  He was more popular in his later years, and his early work was not considered a resounding success.  However, here it is, 2018, and he is still being read.  His work focuses on the class issue, commercialism, and the themes of love and loyalty.

The Paying Guest is a novella, and concerns a young British couple whom we would consider middle class today, but keep in mind, in spite of being what we would think of as middle class, they had a nanny and a maid/cook.  They live in something of a suburb of London, and the husband works in the city.  The husband, thinking to improve their finances, sees an ad in the newspaper from a young woman looking for a home in which she could live as a paying guest.  He offers the suggestion to his wife that if the young woman is suitable and the two women get along, it might be a way to earn a little more income.

The young woman arrives, and although claiming she has had 200 responses to her ad, chooses them with whom to stay.  She wishes to escape her lower class home, and although her step father is kind and generous, she feels he somewhat prefers his own daughter from a previous marriage.

The plot revolves around the young woman’s attempts to make a suitable marriage by playing off two interested men against each other, one of whom is the soon-to-be-betrothed of her step sister.  All of her machinations bring a lot of silly trouble to both her family and the people she is staying with, and all in all, would probably make a decent sit com episode in today’s world.

The book is filled with who is superior to whom, who can ‘receive’ whom, who is beneath whom, and just what few options a young woman has in the England of the late 1880s,  marriage to someone who can support her being the option of choice.

Sweet novella length book, and good enough to make me want to give his more popular books a shot to see if they hold my interest in a longer version.

THE OBELISK GATE by N. K. Jemisin

This is the second of the Broken World trilogy, and it is every bit as good as the first.  I have found that trilogy-reading can be dicey.  Usually, the first is great, the second is pretty good, and the third is meh.  Not always, but often enough for me not to get my hopes up.  Well, raise the hope flag, kiddies, because The Obelisk Gate is another page turner.

It continues the story of Damalya/Syenite/Essun, as she travels on to find her daughter, Nessum.

In the world of the Stillness, earthquakes occur with such devastating frequency that their aftermath is called a Fifth Season: a season of ashy skies, boiled oceans, fauna and flora that change their behavior in accordance with the vicious atmosphere. The world has lasted this long because of orogenes, people born with the ability to manipulate thermodynamics such that they can quell shakes and divert disaster. But orogenes are a feared and oppressed minority among the so-called stills, kept in check by Guardians who can resist and disrupt their power.

We now see Essun — who was Syenite, who was Damaya — living underground in a strange crystal-ridden community called Castrima. Essun had been taken in by a community that at least nominally accepted roggas (as orogenes are called, derisively.) The community lives in a geode deep in the earth, a structure undoubtedly of ancient and occult origin. She and her traveling companions—a boy who is not a child, and a woman who has strange talents of her own—attempt to fit in, to grieve and survive this bleak new world. Essen also finds someone from her past: a teacher of sorts, a lover, the strongest orogene in the world. The man who broke the world as it broke him. , learning that her old friend, mentor and lover, Alabaster — the most powerful orogene in the Stillness — is responsible for the current Season. Drawing power from the incomprehensible obelisks that float in the skies, he tore the continent apart trying to use their power to break the sick social order and begin the enormous work of ending the terrible cycle of Seasons.  He is trying to bring the moon back into orbit, from which it was flung eons ago.

But the cost of using the obelisks is high. Alabaster is slowly turning into stone, and Essun needs to learn all she can from him if she’s to complete the work he began, and end the Seasons once and for all.

The Obelisk Gate won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016, and The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW by Zoe Heller

Willy Muller is a 55-year-old antihero,  a hack journalist, absent father, convicted murderer, and all-around jerk who must come to terms with his past when his teenage daughter Sadie commits suicide. Muller became estranged from Sadie and her older sister, Sophie, when he was imprisoned for murdering his wife and their mother, Oona.

After being released on appeal, out of a job and desperate for cash, Muller wrote To Have and To Hold, a lurid confessional novel about his marriage and his wife’s death. The book’s publication earned him the scorn of friends and family, and Muller fled England for Los Angeles, leaving his two rebellious, emotionally damaged teenage daughters and pursuing a life of feeble ghostwriting and shallow society.

The novel opens with Muller recuperating from a heart attack and reevaluating his life with the help of a box of Sadie’s diaries, sent to him after her death. Reading the words of his ill-fated daughter, he can no longer deceive himself about his sorry behavior.

Sounds like a real downer, right?   Well, yes and no.  You can get annoyed at the whiny, entitled tone of Willy, but all the time you know that he knows that he is a sh*t, and that even if he feels sorry for himself, he also feels he deserves it.

Willy is Everyman, really.  Some good, some bad, some neurotic, some introspective, some self-delusional, some honest with oneself.

The title comes from this passage:

Once, when we were on our honeymoon and all this anguish was ahead of us, we overheard an elderly Jewish couple bickering in one of the corridors of the Algonquin.  This old codger, with this nylon slacks pulled up to his tits, was giving his wife a hard time for leading him the wrong way to the elevator.  “Everything you know!” he kept muttering sarcastically.  “Everything you know!” I told you it was the other way already, but you wouldn’t listen to me.  Oh, no, everything you know!”

Yeah, we think we know everything, don’t we.  We each of us thinks we always know best.  And sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.

If you need some advice on being lonely
If you need a little help in feeling blue
If you need some advice on how to cry all night
Come to me, I’m the man with the blues.

I’m the man with 100,000 heartaches
And I’ve got most any color of the blues
So if you need a little shove in fouling up in love
Come to me, I’m the man with the blues.

—— Willie Nelson, ‘Everything You know’

 

 

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block

This is the last of the Matthew Scudder detective series.  I disliked the previous two because of the unwanted sections giving the viewpoint of the serial killer.  But in what may be the final Scudder book, we are back to old times, old style.

Scudder is now in his sixties, still sober, still married to Elaine, and sitting around with his old friend and criminal, Mick, who has now married the daughter of the folks murdered two books ago.  He has also cut way back on the drink, some days not drinking at all.   As the two get to reminiscing, Scudder remembers old High-Low Jack, Jack Ellery.  They were in grammar school together for a couple of years before Scudder’s family moved, and ran into each other a couple of times since, with Matt having joined the police force, and Jack having taken a criminal route.

But when they meet once again, about a year after Matt is sober, it is at an AA meeting, and Jack has been sober longer than Matt, a couple of years at least.  He is working the Steps, the twelve steps of the program which have been created to help a person get sober and remain sober.   He is working on the 8th and 9th steps, where one lists all those one has harmed by one’s drinking, and in the 9th step, goes to each one to make amends.

He is found one day in his rooming house room, shot twice, once in the mouth, and it is not suicide, unless you consider him a very determined person.   The police have nothing, and the case goes cold, but Jack’s sponsor has a dilemma which he discusses with Matt.  He has the list of persons harmed written by Jack, and if he turns it over to the police, they could involve a lot of innocent people with dicey backgrounds.  If he doesn’t turn over the list, perhaps the killer is among those on the list and will go free.  He asks Scudder to investigate the people on the list in order to clear them.  And it looks like everyone on the list is clear.  And then some of them start turning up dead, one as an apparent victim of a murder, and one an apparent suicide.

Great mystery, really well done, and the case solved by Scudder’s now legendary tenacity and inability to let go.

There was a lot about AA and the meetings, and a fair amount about the steps, and I found it all just so interesting.  I am glad this seems to be the last of the series, because I was getting tired of it,  and judging from the previous two books, so was the author, but I did want to finish out the series.  The book ends with Matt and Mike:

Somewhere along the way he’d returned his bottle to the back bar and came back with a liter of Evian water.  And there we sat, two old men up past our bedtime, talking and drinking water.

I might try some of his other series.  He is a prolific writer with a style I enjoy.