Paper Plane Reviews

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Category: Science Fiction Page 2 of 4

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that I have intended to read for some time, but just hadn’t gotten to. It had gotten to the point where my sister was shocked that I hadn’t actually read it yet, especially considering how much I like the whole cyberpunk aesthetic. So when I rediscovered where I had put the book, I couldn’t really put it off any longer.

Neuromancer follows Case, a former data-thief whose nervous system was burnt out by some former clients who he stole from. When he is approached by a mysterious employer who is willing to repair Case’s nervous system in return for going back into the Matrix on a mission that could be more dangerous than anything he’s attempted before. Soon it’s apparent that the only ones he can trust are Molly, a mirror-eyed street samurai, and Flatline Dixie, an AI approximation of his old mentor.
I’m still not quite sure how to feel about Neuromancer. On the one hand, it has all the atmosphere that I could possibly want in a cyberpunk novel. There is the weird kind of 1980s Blade-Runner-style idea of what the future would look like, which I like a lot more than I probably should. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but immersive nonetheless. And if you’re willing to stick with some unfamiliar terms or are a big cyberpunk fan, then this is an obvious title to pick up. You’d pick it up regardless of my overall review really. As such, for those of you still on the fence, here are a couple things that you might want to consider before picking it up, in case they prove to be deal breakers.
The first thing that really gave me pause for thought is that, as a protagonist, Case is surprisingly passive. After years of fiction in which the main driving force of a novel can be firmly placed with a handful of characters of which the protagonist is always withing that number, it’s a real shock to the system to follow around someone who has more or less no say in where he goes or how he acts. Sure, he sometimes does the odd thing that his employers don’t expect, but never anything major enough to throw a spanner in the overall plan. And I guess I can see why that decision was made, so that there was an appropriate sense of distrust and paranoia between him and his employers, but that understanding doesn’t make the experience of reading Neuromancer any less jarring.
The second issue I have is with the character of Peter Riviera. On top of being just generally unpleasant for no real reason, I still don’t quite get why he is brought into the run. He’s acknowledged to be a risk due to his perverse and psychopathic nature, but is brought onto the team to act as some poorly defined honey trap. I doubt that it was meant to be any kind of surprise when he betrays them, it just sticks out to me as an unnecessary risk in a plan that was supposed to have been set in motion by an incredibly intelligent and patient character.

If you like cyberpunk, especially the stuff that has that very 1980s feel to it, then you have probably already picked it up and really don’t need my encouragement. For those of you on the fence, it is an immersive story, but one with some odd stylistic choices that could bother some people. The main ones for me were the odd passivity of the main character and the logical flaw in entrusting a key part of a mission to a character who specifically has a betrayal fetish. 3.5/5

Next review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Signing off,
Nisa.

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

It’s been a little while since I settled down with a proper fantasy book, and considering that the blurb promised a threat of a huge invading army I was more than happy to take a look at it. When I actually got round to reading Empire in Black and Gold though, my husband took one look at the cover and said, “Oh yeah, I remember reading that. Wasn’t a fan.” With that rousing recommendation, I forged ahead anyway.

After witnessing the invasion of the city state of Myna, an artificer by the name of Stenwold Maker has appealed to his peers in his home city, the Collegium, in the hopes that his warnings will lead to a better defence against the armies of the Wasp Empire. It soon becomes clear that few take his warnings seriously though, so he must recruit agents from amongst his own students, in the hopes that they will be able to muster their own allies and defences. When the Wasps arrive in the Collegium under the pretence of allegiance, he knows that he has run out of time for preparation.
At its core, Empire in Black and Gold is a solid fantasy and an excellent foundation for the rest of what I have just found is quite a lengthy series at this point. A lot of its success can be attributed to some interesting world-building. While in other fantasy series you would encounter races of elves and dwarves alongside the regular, boring humans, Tchaikovsky has instead opted to go with multiple races of human, all of whom share traits with certain insects. For example, the aforementioned Stenwold Maker is a Beetle-kinden, which means that he’s methodical and tenacious, while an ally of his, Tisamon, is a Mantis-kinden and thus very combat-oriented and deadly. An interesting concept which makes for some unusual sources of conflict, as certain races are gifted with machinery while others are gifted with more magical arts. On the other hand, it does create one of the biggest holes in the world-building that just doesn’t make sense no matter how I look at it.
So, the reader finds out rather quickly, through the character of Totho, that halfbreeds are very taboo. Totho, as a half-Ant/half-Beetle hybrid, is treated with only the barest of courtesy by most of the cast, with no real prospects for a career and with some outright willing to beat the stuffing out of him because of his mixed heritage. It makes up a HUGE part of his character, and I would be interested to see how that pans out. Now, with the taboo surrounding halfbreeds being so ingrained in this society, you would naturally assume that mixed race relationships would be similarly looked down on. Nope. The only time it’s addressed is when Totho expresses interest in a girl. One of the main leads, a Spider-kinden girl, expresses interest in one of her friends fairly early on, and the fact that he’s Dragonfly-kinden doesn’t seem to bother her. In fact it kind of acts as a bonus for her, as his race are comparatively rare where most of the plot is set and therefore exotic. I just don’t understand how you can have Totho on one hand, a character who has been completely browbeaten on the sheer basis of who he is, and then have several budding romances between people of different races go more or less entirely uncommented on. I just don’t understand how that can work, as one prejudice should naturally lead to the other. If mixed relations are okay, then there needs to be an in-universe reason why the offspring of those relations aren’t okay, and we’re never made privy to it. It is a comparatively small part of the world-building, but it just annoys me.

A solid fantasy with some intriguing world-building. I would be more than willing to continue the series and see how the politics and war stuff pans out. Unfortunately not all the world-building makes sense, with the attitude towards halfbreeds compared to the attitude towards mixed race relationships being the most obvious. Still worth a read though. 4/5

Next review: The Fires by Rene Steinke

Signing off,
Nisa.

Machine of Death edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Of all the titles in that Humble Bundle, Machine of Death was probably the one with the most morbidly intriguing title and premise. But it was an anthology of short stories, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of quality due to the sheer number of writers contributing. But there’s only so long that someone can resist a premise like that.

Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centred around the idea that there is a machine that can predict the means of your death. Not the date or any other context, just the means by which your life will end. Sometimes the machine is straightforward. Sometimes the machine can be almost perversely ironic in its predictions: for example, a man presented with a slip stating OLD AGE may be just as likely to die as the result of being run over by a pensioner who can’t see over the wheel as he is of passing peacefully in his sleep. Sometimes the machine is just incomprehensible, spitting out slips reading ALMOND or FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Machine of Death collects a variety of stories that explore the various reactions to knowing in a roundabout way how you are going to die.
I’m actually quite impressed at the overall quality of the work on display here, considering that it collects the efforts of several different writers, and generally people who are more known for their work with internet reviews and comics. For instance, I wasn’t aware that Randall Monroe from xkcd wrote fiction, and while I love his work on that comic I wasn’t sure how that would translate to a more traditional work of fiction. And while there are a couple of stories that, while not necessarily complete duds, could have done with a bit more polishing, there wasn’t really anything that stood out as ruining my reading experience. Probably the thing that bothered me most was that there are a few stories that focus on the creation and spread of the Machine of Death, and none of those quite meshed together. It’s a fairly minor issue considering, but it did niggle a bit for me.

Perhaps a bit of a morbid recommendation, but Machine of Death is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what the human race does with the knowledge of their own demise, with reactions ranging from relief to outright paranoia. Maybe not for those who are after a bit of light fiction, but definitely a book that I can recommend to those willing to suspend their disbelief. 4/5

Next review: The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black

Signing off,
Nisa.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Returning to the Humble Bundle, I settled on another science-fiction title in the form of Spin. Much like my last foray into science-fiction, there wasn’t much that I could glean from the blurb beyond “the stars are gone”, but I was mostly optimistic. My last book entered with more or less a blank slate outlook was a resounding success, and I was hoping for perhaps another sleeper hit.


Spin follows Tyler Dupree and his best friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, in the fallout of a massive cosmic event that starts when all the stars disappear from the sky. It soon becomes apparent that there is some kind of unnatural barrier surrounding the Earth, and that it is affecting more than just the appearance of the night sky. As more is found out about the mechanics of the Spin, Tyler finds himself torn between his two friends: while Jason throws himself into researching the Spin and why it was put there, Diane retreats into increasingly unorthodox religious movements in order to find meaning in a world that seems to be facing the end.
I found myself liking Spin, although not necessarily for my normal reasons. This is the first book that looks so closely at the world-building aspect of writing that hasn’t left me entirely cold. Possibly this is because for all the understandable fascination that Wilson has for the actual scientific aspects of what would go into a phenomenon like the Spin, he balances it with how the science affects society at large. For the most part, there doesn’t seem to be much reaction at all unless there’s something big and showy happening in the sky. It’s a slow creep of realisation instead of constant massive panic. I also liked that even when the narrative is dealing with some seriously out-there cults, there isn’t the kind of anti-religious bullshit that you sometimes get with science-fiction dealing with potentially world-ending consequences. Even when the results of their actions turn out poorly, the people within these sects aren’t depicted as crazed loons, just people who are scared and need somewhere to turn for answers. It’s a surprisingly balanced look that is sorely welcome.
If I were to criticise anything about Spin, it would be the main character and narrator, Tyler. While there’s nothing that I can think of that is actively aggravating or off-putting about him, neither can I think of anything really interesting about him either. The only thing that really stands out about him is his unhealthy obsession with the Lawton twins, and honestly it just makes him come across as embarrassingly needy. While not a huge issue, it does make the stakes a bit lower than they otherwise might be with a more engaging protagonist.

A really interesting look at a society abruptly reminded of their fragile place in the universe and how different parts of humanity look to try and cope. The main character is remarkable only for his unhealthy obsession with his two friends, but he’s not enough of an issue to make Spin unreadable. Definitely one for readers who like solid world-building. 4/5

Next review: The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Signing off,
Nisa.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ll admit, when I got the Humble ebook Bundle I didn’t have any idea of what I was getting into with Shards of Honor. I’d vaguely heard of the Vorkosigan Saga and generally they seemed good things, but I’d never really looked into the series enough to get a solid idea of what it was all about. I figured from the blurb that it would be military science-fiction of some sort, but not much beyond that. More or less completely blind going in. Nice.

Shards of Honor follows Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a scientific survey crew who becomes the prisoner of Aral Vorkosigan, a man of sinister reputation and the former commander of the soldiers who attacked her crew. But despite the initial mistrust, the two find themselves growing unexpectedly attracted to one another, and must face the possibility of being forever parted when their planets threaten to go to war.
I honestly didn’t think I was going to like Shards of Honor when I first started reading it, as the narrative kind of throws the reader in at the deep end. I hadn’t gotten further than maybe the first couple of pages in and it’s throwing around new terms for planets and space-age weaponry with gay abandon. More than a little off-putting at first, not unlike trying to get your head around Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange for the first time. But like the aforementioned Nadsat, your head does manage to wrap itself around the more unusual terms with surprisingly little extra information.
Having adjusted myself to being thrust into the plot with a lot more speed than I am accustomed to, I realised that despite my initial reservations I was really enjoying myself. While the easiest way to describe the novel is military science-fiction with romance, Shards of Honor takes those base elements and does some really interesting things with them. So, first the military bit. I’m actually kind of surprised at how little fighting is actually shown directly. Possibly this is due to the main character being more or less a non-combatant, but the parts of war that are shown most often can be boiled down to internal politics and large scale battle strategy. Considering how much I love some politics and back-stabbing, I was totally in my element. Additionally, it was good to see that the sides aren’t easily delineated into purely good or malign. While the invading Barrayaran army is mostly in the wrong, it has a mix of Caligula types versus more noble types like Vorkosigan. Similarly, while there are perfectly reasonable people on the side of Escobar and Beta Colony like Cordelia, there are a surprising amount of people unwilling to look beyond basic propaganda messages. And no-one gets out of war unscathed, even or perhaps especially those who got what they wanted from the conflict. I am definitely looking forward to reading more about this world.
Second, the romance. I was pleasantly surprised that the novel focused on a middle age romance. While I’m a sucker for most kinds of romance, I don’t think I’ve really seen much in the genre where the people involved aren’t in their mid-twenties or younger (aside from the supernatural stuff, but even then no-one thinks or looks over thirty). It was refreshing to see the romance unfold with more maturity and a more thoughtful pace. It’s established pretty quickly that both Cordelia and Aral have been badly burned by their romantic attachments in the past, so their connection is less outwardly passionate, but no less powerful for it.

A bit of a slow burner at the start, but well worth the short period of confusion at the beginning. Shards of Honor is probably quite a good introduction to military science-fiction, if my reaction was anything to go by. I would definitely look into getting more of the Vorkosigan Saga as a result anyway. 4.5/5

Next review: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

As some of you may have noticed, I am currently working my way through the second Humble ebook Bundle. I remember being vaguely interested in Little Brother when I first got the bundle, if only because it was dealing with a subject that I could discuss with my husband. If nothing, it would be nice to be able to actively engage with one of his special interests a bit more.

Little Brother follows Marcus Yallow, a more or less regular teen with a particular interest in technology and the ways that it can help him bunk off school. One particular day, he and some friends skip class, only to find themselves in the vicinity of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. During the chaos, he and his friends are arrested by the Department of Home Security and interrogated for nearly a week. When he is let out, he realises that his best friend Darryl wasn’t released with them. Combined with the fact that the DHS has made San Francisco into a police state, and Marcus has more than enough reason to take them down.
Right, so there’s something that I want to get out of the way right away. While I did enjoy Little Brother overall, there is a lot of stuff that Doctorow explains, especially at the beginning. While I do acknowledge that there’s a fair bit that does need to be expanded on, especially if computers and security systems aren’t subjects that you’ve looked into before, there is still a fine line with how much is necessary for proper engagement. I don’t know whether this is because my husband has tried to explain at least some basic concepts to me, but I personally found that the stuff at the beginning kind of went overboard with the detail. Contrasting that, a concept that comes up later in the novel was so strangely explained that I had to get my husband to re-explain it for me when I got home from work. That last point aside though, there isn’t really anything complicated enough to derail the plot and I can understand that you would want to err on the side of too much information when you’re targeting a slightly younger audience. So this might be more of an annoyance if you’re more familiar with coding when you go into this, but for complete beginners I can see the overabundance of detail being more useful than annoying.
Having gotten that negativity out of the way, I will say that I really enjoyed Little Brother. It is a really insightful look into what could happen if a country decides that the needs of “security” overrides the rights of its citizens’ to privacy and free speech. The fact that I finished this on the day that Erdogan banned Wikipedia in Turkey, in order to block out content by writers accused of “supporting terror”, is not something that has escaped me. Following the initial terror attack at the beginning, terrorists aren’t even considered a credible threat by the narrative, regardless of how much the DHS try to insist that they’re the only threat. And I think that that is very telling actually. While terrorism is something that has mentally and emotionally shaped Western society since the turn of the century and I wouldn’t want to underplay the damage that these individuals have caused to the families of their victims, I don’t think that terrorists are what we are really scared of. At least for me, there is the awareness that terror groups just don’t have the resources or numbers in order to actually change things or even react to the increased measures against them. In contrast, working as a public servant I am keenly aware of just how much information that a government has about its citizens, and the prospect of what could happen if my government decided that it could exploit that in the name of safety feels a lot more real and legitimately terrifies me at times. But then I talk to my parents about this, and they’re of a generation that doesn’t necessarily understand technology as much and would perhaps prefer to err on the side of security over internet freedom. Little Brother gets into this younger mindset really well, and is probably a good place to try and introduce these kinds of concepts to those who aren’t as familiar with them.

Definitely one to recommend for someone looking for a semi-realistic modern dystopia. It’s a bit over-the-top when it comes to explaining concepts at times, but for the most part it appears to be pretty accurate when it comes to all things coding. 4/5

Next review: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Signing off,
Nisa.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker has been on my reading list for a fair while now, picked up as part of a geeky bundle. I was definitely looking forward to this one though, as it combines one of my favourite sub-genres, steampunk, with something looking horror elements. I was keen to see how it would pan out.

In an alternate history where the Civil War has been raging for two decades, an attempt to mine through the frozen Klondike for gold leads to disaster when the massive drill known as the Boneshaker destroys huge parts of downtown Seattle and releases a previously subterranean gas that turns those unfortunate to breathe it into the living dead. Sixteen years later, the worst affected parts of the city have been sealed off by walls, and the widow and son of the Boneshaker’s inventor, Leviticus Blue, are trying to make a living whilst dealing with the ignominy of their relative’s devastating actions. When Ezekiel makes his way into the sealed off city determined to find proof of his father’s lack of malicious intent, Briar must find a way through the living dead and heavily armed criminals still living in the ravaged city in order to bring her son back.
Boneshaker was something of a slow burner for me. While I absolutely loved Briar and her sections trying to reach her son whilst regretting all the things that she never felt ready to tell him about his father, I was less keen on Zeke’s sections. While there’s nothing outright wrong about the way that he’s written, I just find his kind of character irritating. An ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure and all, it’s more interesting watching Briar’s more considered approach as opposed to Zeke’s “I have maps and a mask, I have no more need for preparation” plan of attack, which inevitably leads to a lot of blind panic. He does get better by the end though, so it’s worth it to plough through his sections of blundering in the middle of the book. And Boneshaker is definitely worth finishing. Keeping in mind that it’s alternate history and thus there are some massive creative liberties that have been taken with regards to historical accuracy, you can really tell that Priest is enthusiastic about the period and tries to keep as much historical flavour as possible within her re-imagined chronology. It makes the world feel a lot more grounded and realistic than a lot of other fantasy/science-fiction books, even compared to series where comparatively little is different to the real world. I can’t really think of many people that I couldn’t recommend this to.

A steampunk story that feels a lot more grounded than other examples in the genre even considering the additional undead, Boneshaker is definitely a book that I would recommend picking up for fans of the genre or those looking to for an introduction to steampunk. I personally found Zeke’s sections in the middle to be a bit tiresome at times, but they are more than made up for by Briar’s sections and he does gradually get some decent character development. The characters are solid, and there is some decent intrigue. 4.5/5

Next review: Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Signing off,
Nisa.

Around the Moon by Jules Verne

So last time I was looking at From the Earth to the Moon and found myself pleasantly surprised despite the dodgy 19th century science. Presumably then I would be similarly taken with its direct sequel, Around the Moon, right? Yeah, about that…. 

Around the Moon follows Barbicane, Nicholl and Ardan as they journey to the moon in their projectile. All seems well, until they realise that they have been knocked off course and may miss the moon entirely. 
As a lot of my previous review covers suspension of disbelief, I will quickly address how Around the Moon compares in that regard. It is so much worse. While I could kind of wave away a lot of the previous installment with the sentiment that the principle is more or less sound, when almost the entire plot focuses around the characters noting down their observations of the moon, or what the 19th century thought the moon would be like, it is extremely difficult to ignore or wave all the ways that this is wrong. Like the point where they open a window in order to dispose of an animal carcass into the vacuum of space. It is points like that that make the suspension of disbelief so much more difficult this time around. If you can deal with imaginative departures from fact, then you may find this less distracting than I did. 
Now to the part that is special to Around the Moon when compared to its predecessor. The action, bar the last few chapters, all takes place within the confines of the projectile fired at the end of the previous installment. Now, when you have a story occur in entirely one place, your writing skills are pushed to the limit, especially if none of the characters can leave said place. There are two things that need to work near enough perfectly for such a situation to work: the pacing and the characters. To say that Verne dropped the ball may be an understatement. In regards to the pacing, it kind of settles on a slow trudge due to most of the action being the observation of the moon and space. There are a couple of points where the projectile is almost hit by asteroids, but there’s nothing that the protagonists can do in the face of it, so it doesn’t really stop the monotony of watching a huge deal. As such, the characters become even more important, and it couldn’t have been a bigger catastrophe if it tried. Of the three main characters, two are flat caricatures of the practical American stereotype that Verne seems to love, and even their supposed intelligence is put to question considering that they only consider how they are meant to get back to Earth once they are well past the Earth’s atmosphere. They are nothing compared to the irritation that is Ardan though. You know in some series you get those characters that are meant to be charmingly whimsical but end up being a vacant ninny infatuated with their own stupidity? Michel Ardan is that character. He keeps suggesting things that are blatantly ridiculous or dangerous for them to do whilst on the journey, only to moan that his travel companions are too practical and boring when they inevitably poke holes in his ideas. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that he would ignore them at the point where he wondered what it would be like to float along in the wake of the projectile. By all means Ardan, throw yourself into the icy vacuum of space, it will be the most use you’ve been all trip, especially after sneaking a flock of chickens on board for no real reason. 
While From the Earth to the Moon was a fun thought exercise where human ingenuity causes something amazing, Around the Moon was the space equivalent of setting out on a journey only to realise you only have fuel for a one-way trip and everyone left their money at home. Sorely disappointing. 1.5/5 
Next review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
Signing off, 
Nisa. 

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

When you have a fondness for steampunk as I have, two authors above all others are cited as influences on the sub-genre: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The former brings the influence of technology as a springboard for great advancement and adventure, whilst the latter brings the more socially aware aspect of science fiction to the genre. As such, it’s a little embarrassing that until now, I had read neither of their works. Seeking to fix that for at least half of these important writers, I picked up a collection of From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon by Jules Verne. And at the halfway point, how does the writing stand? 

From the Earth to the Moon follows the Baltimore Gun Club, a collection of men known and respected throughout the United States for their innovations in the field of firearms and artillery. But, with the American Civil War over, their golden era appears to be coming to an end, as there is no need for overpowered cannons until war breaks out again. At their lowest point though, the club president, Barbicane, presents an idea for an experiment that will test the Gun Club’s credentials: they will attempt to build a cannon powerful enough that you could send a projectile to the surface of the moon. And with that announcement, a furore spreads across America and the world. 
This is a rather strange book to read, for several reasons. The first thing that I will mention though is the focus of the narrative. It isn’t the firing of the projectile to the moon, which happens less than 20 pages before the end of the book. The actual narrative focuses on the process of making the cannon and the projectile in the first place, with the moon-based shenanigans presumably taking place in Around the Moon. As such, it does feel weirdly paced, as this is the sort of prep work that books usually condense down to a paragraph or two at most. In From the Earth to the Moon, that prep work is pretty much the whole story, with chapters dedicated to steps such as: consulting with astronomers when the best time to fire said projectile would be when dealing with the moon’s elliptical orbit, appealing for funding from overseas, and the process by which the cannon is forged, to name but a few. It’s bizarre to read, but not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t usually get into the world-building in quite such detail, and it is an interesting change from the norm. 
The problem with going into details is that from the perspective of the modern reader, whose concept of space travel is probably vastly different to that of a contemporary reader of Verne’s, is that when the dodgy science turns up, it’s a heck of a lot more noticeable. This isn’t necessarily so obvious in the first half or so, where the intent is more or less to just shoot the moon to see if they can. When the French adventurer Ardan comes along insisting to be part of the experiment though, it becomes an attempt to send people onto the moon via the projectile. At that point, the suspension of disbelief becomes significantly harder, sometimes to the point of unintentional humour. They pack a year’s worth of food rations but only enough water to last them a little more than the journey’s expected length, because of course the moon has water on the surface. At some points it becomes a struggle to stop trying to figure out which part of their ridiculous plan will kill them first. In addition, there are some non-scientific points where the narrative takes a turn for the weirdly funny, again probably not intentionally. My personal favourite is where the three adventurers have to break it to the overly excitable secretary of the Gun Club that they won’t have room for a fourth person on the voyage, only for the narrator to mention that the three men will be accompanied by a Setter and a Newfoundland. A Newfoundland is pretty much a tame bear, and Setters aren’t that much smaller. 
But, while it is difficult to take seriously at times, I still couldn’t help but enjoy reading it. Ignoring the unintentional laughs, it was nice to read some science fiction that wasn’t about someone attempting to undo some great evil wrought through maliciously-applied science or some new technology going terribly wrong. Here, it was the process by which someone took a concept that seemed far-fetched at best, and by applying the best of what science understood at the time, achieved something fantastic. The science may be out-of-date, but the boundless enthusiasm for the endeavours of the human spirit is something of a breath of fresh air. 
The science behind the project is absolutely ludicrous at times, but considering that From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865, over a century before a moon landing was even remotely successful, then you can forgive it somewhat. If you can overlook the massive holes in logic and physics, then you have a book that documents a group of people trying to do what no-one has attempted before, and the concept of their failing is never even considered. There’s something about that positivity that makes this endearing, where normally the plot-holes would annoy me more. 3.5/5 
Next review: Around the Moon by Jules Verne. 
Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

I started Keeping It Real with some rather mixed expectations. On the one hand, I had picked the book up in Forbidden Planet, saw the blurb and liked it. I mean, from the description, it sounded kind of similar to the setting of the Shadowrun games, but with more of a romantic slant to it, so what’s not to like? On the other hand, my occasional guest poster has since read another of Justina Robson’s books in the meantime, The Glorious Angels, and he absolutely despised it. I think it’s the first time that I’ve ever actually seen him get disgusted that something like it got published, especially by Gollancz, an imprint that he seems to rather like. And having read some of that, I could see why. So what enthusiasm I had for the book initially had waned somewhat, but I still figured that I’d give it a go. What could go wrong?

Keeping It Real follows Lila Black, a secret agent who is assigned to her first mission after being rebuilt into a cyborg body. She is assigned to protect Zal, an elven singer who is causing controversy by being the decadent rock-star that the Elf realm is entirely opposed to. But there is more to this musician than he will admit to her, to the point where the fate of all the other realms may hinge upon his safety. The fact that there is some magically-enhanced sexual tension brewing between the two will only make Lila’s job more difficult.
I really don’t know why I still entertained a shred of hope that Keeping It Real would be in any way good. I want to try and talk about its failures in a structured way, but honestly there’s a lot to cover. Let me just say to start with that my overwhelming impression of the book is that this is the result of telling an alien the basics of writing and certain genres, then telling it to have a go. The elements of a good or at least passable novel are in there, but they only seem to be there in order to push the plot along. The characters for example. I tried so hard to warm to them, to relate to them, but all seemed absolutely futile. Characters will be going along quite happily, sticking to the logical path for their attributed characteristics, only to then go and do something monumentally stupid or weird in order to push the plot along. Then they’ll go right back to how they were, as if this were totally normal behaviour. As a result, this makes both the political intrigue and the sex scenes fall totally flat. For the political intrigue, the fact that I had no idea what anyone actually wanted or why made the latter chapters where Lila is pretending to be controlled by a ghost living in her body tedious and confusing; if I can’t pick out a motive, connect it to a personality and understand why the two work together, then political intrigue turns into needless complexity. Normally I like intrigue. Normally I don’t find myself urging the protagonist to just break the antagonist’s neck because that’s the quickest way out of this interminable situation. And as for the sex scenes. I should not be bored by a sex scene. Even badly written sex scenes have an element of humour to appreciate them with. The absence of personality from an otherwise decently written sex scene is an absolute kiss of death. It makes you pick holes in the entire scenario. The first one is particularly confusing to consider. Lila and her travelling companion are in a rush and being actively pursued, so why would they pick that exact moment for sexy times? For that matter, why with each other considering that said travelling partner is the reason that she is mostly robotic in the first place? I can appreciate putting differences aside when your goals are the same, but this is ridiculous unless it’s hate sex (this isn’t). And then it makes me think of more general questions about Lila having sex in the first place. Why would the government agency that put her back together include a fully functioning vagina alongside an arsenal of weaponry in each limb? That is, quite honestly, the last thing I think someone would include in their design for a walking death machine. Additionally, she’s powered by a mini nuclear reactor, presumably somewhere in her abdomen. Does that not cause concern for any sexual partners, or does it take more exposure for that particular issue to become evident? In a more engaging book, I wouldn’t be thinking about all the downsides of putting your dick next to a nuclear reactor, but here I am.
Additionally, the plot has an unpleasant habit of introducing setting and character details just as they become narratively important, almost like the author forgot until the last minute. Sure, I don’t mind the odd surprise cropping up in a narrative, but it has to be properly set up first. The gun needs to appear in act one before you can fire it in act two, otherwise it just looks like the author is making shit up as they go along. For example, I mentioned above that Lila is possessed at one point. Whilst possessed, she destroys a little flower belonging to the ghost possessing her. Said flower was never mentioned before this point despite the rest of his earthly possessions being detailed, and yet it is monumentally important both in terms of the ghostly possession itself and in a more social context. That’s just poor writing.

Don’t bother. The characters are flat and do hugely stupid things that are out of character for any sane person, purely to move the plot along. The political intrigue is tedious because the motives are difficult to determine or so asinine as to be not worth mentioning. The sex scenes are competently written but devoid of any feeling, meaning you pick holes in the whole premise of the scene and the characters therein. And the plot introduces important elements mere moments before they come into play. It’s so poorly constructed that I marvel that it was ever picked up in the first place. 1/5

Next review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.

Signing off,
Nisa.

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