Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Published: William Morrow & Co., 2015
Awards Won: Prometheus Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Locus SF and Campbell Memorial Awards

The Book:

“One day, the moon was destroyed.  No one really knew how or why it happened, but soon these questions were wiped out by a more urgent concern. The pieces of the moon would continue to collide, and eventually the rubble would wipe out all life on Earth for thousands of years.

Most of humanity will not survive, but some believe that a fragment could endure.  All resources on Earth pour towards building a habitat for humans in orbit, who may be able to live in the darkness of space for long enough to one day return to their home planet.  Will they be able to overcome mechanical problems and human nature, or is this truly the end?” ~Allie

I’ve read a number of Stephenson’s books, and The Diamond Age and Anathem are my favorites so far.  I generally enjoy Stephenson’s creative ideas.

My Thoughts:

If you’re looking for a book about what could destroy the moon, or looking for an action-packed post-cataclysm space adventure--this is not that book.  However, if you’re more interested in what might happen if the moon were to spontaneously break up, and how one might harness current and extrapolated near future technology to ensure the future of the human race--you’re in the right place.  Seveneves is less interested in traditional narrative arcs than it is in exploring the details of a program the human race might cobble together to allow humans to live in orbit for thousands of years.  There are a few recurring characters to get attached to, but there are also many individuals who might show up only on a single sub-project. The pace is pretty glacial, as we go basically day-by-day through the efforts made in the time leading up to the destruction of life on Earth.  This makes for a very interesting technical story, but not one that is necessarily all that narratively compelling.

For me, the highlight of the book was the detailed focus on science and technology. It must have taken a tremendous amount of research to put together such a thorough picture of the scenario and the human response to it. The idea of keeping isolated humans alive in orbit for thousands of years with near-future technology initially seemed ludicrous, but it began to feel more plausible as the novel went through every angle on the proposed solutions. I enjoyed reading about the construction of the swarm of habitats, the collision avoidance system, and the plans for future genetic diversity.  It was also interesting to see how the people coped with the loss of Earth and their suddenly relatively tiny community.  The writing could be very dry at times, but it was a genuinely fascinating idea.

On the other hand, I had some issues with the pacing and the story.  At the beginning, we were presented with a nearly day-by-day accounting of the time leading up to the end of the Earth.  However, time eventually sped up, and later there was a time jump of thousands of years.  I know that was the only way to show what became of the program and humanity.  Unfortunately, the abruptness of the time shift damaged the sense of plausibility I had with the story, since it skipped over so many details of the intervening time.  Also, a jump of thousands of years means jettisoning a cast of characters I had slowly been growing to enjoy, and instead introducing a whole new group of people in a drastically different society.  This snowballing of the pace also made the ending feel sudden, and some things tied up too neatly for my taste. While I am glad to have read this one, it’s not my favorite of Stephenson’s work.  

My Rating: 3/5

Seveneves is hard science fiction with the science front and center, while the characters and story take a backseat.  Stephenson’s novels usually have really cool ideas, and the novel does not disappoint on that account. I had never considered what would happen if the moon spontaneously broke up, and the intense level of detail lavished on the development of the orbital habitat program made the aftermath feel surprisingly plausible.  While I enjoyed the science, I felt that the latter part of the book seemed rushed and the ending was too sudden.  There was also not all that much to hang on to in terms of character arcs, especially since the cast changes completely after a large time jump. For my part, the interesting ideas were more than enough to keep me reading, despite my complaints. I hope we never actually lose our moon, so that we only ever have to consider this as an interesting hypothetical situation!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey, End

Welcome to the final week of the read-along of Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey!  I anticipate community-reading the second two books of the trilogy later this year, and I’ll post more details on that when they are available.  For now, we say farewell to Naamah’s Kiss with discussion questions provided by Lynn of Lynn’s Book Blog.  As always, watch out for spoilers below!      

1. Moirin has come a long way since we first met her.  How do you think her adventures have changed her if at all - does anything stand out in particular?

I think she’s more mature now than she was at the beginning of her journey, and I feel like she understands a lot more about people (her upbringing didn’t involve much help on that subject). Her night with Snow Tiger highlighted that, as she actually sees herself now as the comforter and mentor, rather than the other way around. She spent a lot of time sort of floundering in the City of Elua, and I feel like she has gotten her feet under her in Ch’in.

2. I was hit by how far Moirin’s magical abilities have come along, I don’t think I particularly expected it to be honest - why do you think that might be?

I think her interactions with various characters has prompted the blossoming of her abilities.  Master Lo Feng and his Way taught her mindfulness and more of an awareness of herself and her surroundings, and I’m sure the dragon had his part in awakening latent power in her.

I’m pretty happy she discovered the memory-eating power, because it would have been horrible if all those people had been killed for knowing about the use of gunpowder as a weapon.  On that note, though, I don’t think this is a long term solution.  It sounded like many people were aware of gunpowder and its non-martial uses, so it seems inevitable that others will once again turn it to war.  Even if they don’t, people in other parts of the world will, and then Ch’in will be at a disadvantage when they eventually encounter them.  The box is already open, and I don’t think they can close it.  

3. Looking back through the story it feels like most aspects had a bearing on the final outcome, do you think Moirin’s path is really set in stone or does she have the ability to change things?

This is one thing that has irritated me a bit about the story, which is that Moirin does not seem to have any power to change things.  She could always turn away from her destiny, allowing her diadh-anam to gutter and die.  If she follows her diadh-anam, though, she is following a pre-ordained path.  Even her love life is largely dictated by her diadh-anam, when it is not controlled by Naamah.  I guess her big question is going to be whether she would have chosen this path in life, if she had a choice.

4. Do you feel that Moirin’s actions will have an impact on the Maghuin Dhonn in any way?

I don’t see how they could.  Ch’in is pretty far away to even be a trade partner for Alba.  On the other hand, assuming she does eventually return home, she will bring with her teachings from wise people of a different culture.  That may have an impact on the Maghuin Dhonn society.

5. Were you surprised by the final chapters with Lo and Bao and the overall reaction of Bao?

I was surprised Lo Feng gave his life to resurrect Bao, but it makes sense in retrospect.  I admit that I wished Moirin could’ve fixed Bao’s staff before he had to block all those poison darts, but I guess hindsight is 20/20.  

I was also surprised by Bao’s resistance to being with Moirin.  I thought their decision had more or less already been made.  It was clear they liked each other, and they were both straightforward in their intention of pursuing a relationship after the dragon business was settled.  I guess I can see his point, that he would never know what course their relationship would have taken without supernatural meddling.

6. We know that Moirin is about to set off an another journey as this book ends.  Any predictions, hopes or fears for what is to come next?

Oh, please, let her not go to Darsanga. I hope she ends up going to Terra Nova.  I feel like that’s been hinted at, off and on, during this book. Whether or not she’ll be with Bao, I don’t know.  It would be really interesting if they ended up as close friends and partners, but Moirin’s great love was with someone else.

Other Things:

--I'm glad Snow Tiger was able to build some happier memories about physical intimacy.

--Why didn't they disarm Black Sleeve before taking him in the presence of the Imperial Family, as well as the most celebrated wise man and all of his apprentices?  They KNEW he threw poison darts out of his sleeves!

--If Snow Tiger and Ten Tigers Dai do fall in love... that doesn't seem like it would have a great societal impact.  Literally the only male guard who is allowed to avoid castration, and he gets in her bed.

--I get the feeling that Bao's encounter with his father (if he finds him) will not be as happy as Moirin's. Hopefully, Moirin will be there in time to comfort him.

--The finding charm came in handy! I wonder if that will be a recurring tool she uses in her future adventures.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Kiss by Jacqueline Carey, Part 6

Welcome to week six of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey's Naamah's Kiss, the first book of Moirin's Trilogy and the seventh book of the Kushiel's Legacy series.  This week's questions cover chapters 61-74, and have been provided by me!  This read-along is nearing its end, but if you're interested in future read-alongs, you can keep an eye on our goodreads group.  Now, on to the questions and beware of spoilers below:

1) We've finally met Snow Tiger!  What do you make of her and her relationship with Moirin?  Does anything stand out in particular?

While I think it's good that Snow Tiger has someone to confide in, it's pretty rough how the dragon has forced them together.  It's a good thing they get along, at least when the dragon isn't causing problems. That must have been really horrible for Snow Tiger, when the dragon first woke up.  I don't think he really appreciates that there's no way to give back what he took from her. 

One thing that stuck out to me about Snow Tiger is that she is written as very small and dainty, and yet on par with soldiers for strength (even without the dragon, I believe).  Why couldn't she have just been strong and looked like it? I understand why d'Angelines are all beautiful, but why does everyone else have to be?

2) The dragon is a surprising new addition to the cast.  What do you think he'll do when he is free?  Will he really help in the civil war? 

There seemed to be this general assumption that the dragon would help the emperor quell the civil war, but I don't remember if he ever actually agreed to this.  He was imprisoned because Master Lo Feng stole his essence in the first place, so I'm not convinced he has any interest in taking a side in this conflict. He does have a weird fondness for Moirin, so maybe he would help just to protect her. 

3) What do you think of the Path of Dharma, as described by Master Lo Feng?  What path would you prefer to follow?

Out of the options given so far in the book, I think I'd go for Master Lo Feng's Way.  It seems like the least extreme, and is based mostly on mindfulness exercises.  I'm not particularly good at those, but I think I'd be worse at the other paths.

4) Moirin does not seem to mind Bao's jealousy.  What do you think of their possible future as a couple?

When Moirin was not wanting to marry Cillian, I thought maybe she was not into that sort of relationship.  Now that we've seen her with Bao, though, it seems like maybe Cillian was just not the right guy.  Right now, she seems to maybe want to have a traditional, exclusive relationship with Bao. On the other hand, she doesn't have a lot of willpower when it comes to desire, so I'm not sure she could handle being in a long-term exclusive relationship.  In that sense, I think they're both bound to hurt one another eventually.

5) Do you think they acted wisely against Lord Jiang's men at the temple?  Can you see any other decision they should have taken?

I feel like there must have been a better option besides "let the dragon kill everyone".  Maybe they could have kept a closer eye on the monks, so that no one would betray them.  Once the soldiers were already attacking, though, I guess there weren't really any other options left.

Other Things:

--Though I'm not convinced the dragon will join them, Master Lo could make gunpowder weapons.  He as much as said that he knew how, he just didn't think the technology should be used as a weapon.

--The walkway to the temple sounded terrifying.  I have done a cliffside hike just once in my life.  It was terrifying, but at least now I know what an endorphin rush feels like.  Just reading about Moirin stumbling on the path was a little stressful!

--It's a good thing Snow Tiger's dad backed her up instead of disowning her.  It's also a good thing she has a team helping her, because she's not much of a strategist (though it was nice of her to help those villagers).