Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review of "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson

Cryptonomicon is an imminently enjoyable, complex, multi-layered story buoyed along by  sparkling wordplay, crackling with energy from the first page to the last.  As a novel, the book also represents a major step in Stephenson’s career as a writer.

Maturing greatly since Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon is an examination of the importance of cryptology to both the birth of the modern computer and information security in the late 90's dot com scene.  And so while Snow Crash was set in a near-future hyper-capitalist version of the USA, Cryptonomicon remains rooted in familiar settings, the narrative split between the Pacific theater of WWII and the world of international business at the turn of the century.   Those who are expecting action-packed cyberpunk will need to switch to a lower gear to appreciate not only the more sublime storytelling but the wealth of insight and research Stephenson has injected into this 1,100 page tome.  Though digressions on such matters as cryptology and mathematics feature strongly, Stephenson has not lost any of his wit and style, metaphor  taken to a whole new level of whiplash accuracy and zany creativity.  Though not a posterized example of science fiction, the technical elements maintain such presence that it is difficult for the work to be considered anything but, ciphering, decrypting, and the intricacies of our computerized business world featuring strongly.  Who else would make Alan Turing a character in a techno-adventure?

For those who have heard good things about Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle but would like to try something a bit easier to digest prior to digging into that massive eight book work should give Cryptonomicon a try. Otherwise, if you’re looking for a techno-historical adventure rooted in cryptology and computer coding, check this book out, you won’t be disappointed.

Review of "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

Any long lasting band or artist takes their first forays into the public eye with one hand holding ideas of others and the other hand offering ideas of their own.  As they mature and achieve success, a slow transition can be seen in which their own ideas take over and become the trademark style by which they are known.  Snow Crash is from the former stage in Stephenson’s career.  Flashes of brilliance, particularly in the style he would hone in Cryptomicon, appear throughout the plot and dialogue.  The futuristic ideas regarding political autonomy, ultra-capitalism, and scientific development, some of which now seem so commonplace (virtual worlds and lives), were wholly original at the time this book was published and indicate the creative steps Stephenson would later take in Anathem.  

But at heart Snow Crash is a cyberpunk thriller juiced on action steroids.  Lacking the maturity and depth of his later novels, it is defined by over-the-top characterizations (e.g. samurai wielding pizza delivery guy/computer programmer, fearless skateboard punk girl, robo-dog, etc.), James Bond-style world takeover schemes, as well as (ahem) ancient Sumerian artifacts involving secret symbols that require Indiana Jones-esque detective work to unlock.  That it’s written in such an electric style that never seems to stop is a credit to Stephenson’s natural storytelling ability and is certainly responsible for establishing him as a name in the sf world.  But a story with only flashy plot devices remains a story, nothing more poignant or meaningful below the surface to take it to the next level.  

If you’re looking for an exciting, action packed cyber punk thriller with all manner of interesting gadgets and tech, both virtual and real, as well as scenes from a plausible, not-too-futuristic America, then by all means pick this book up, you won't be disappointed.  This is mainstream Stephenson at his best.  However, if you’re better acquainted with Stephenson’s post-Diamond Age writing, this book may come across a little shallow and leave you wanting a more multi-layered examination of themes which tie into the real world. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review of "Song of Kali" by Dan Simmons

I read a number of reviews prior to buying Song of Kali.  I noticed several took issue with the book's portrayal of India as a trash filled, disease ridden country.  After reading the novel, I have to say these people saw only the superficial images of filth and decay Simmons so vividly evokes, thus missing the point of the novel.  At heart, Song of Kali is the story of a man whose eyes are opened, in the most tormenting of fashions, to the social realities of the third world, a changed view of his own culture and environment the result.  Not a cheap shot at the expense of undeveloped countries, the book is foremost a personal journey which seeks to better contextualize differing qualities of life.  In other words, those wishing to read a horror novel purely for the genre’s sake should look elsewhere.  If you’re still interested, the idea of the story is as follows:

Sent to pick up the manuscript of an Indian poet thought dead, the writer Robert Luczak and his family find themselves in the underbelly of Calcutta street life, a place wholly unlike their native USA.  Uncertain of who to trust, Luszak must deal with underground sects, literati, the politically connected, as well as strangers on the street as he attempts to track down the ever elusive manuscript.  The horrors he finds along the way, however, are not limited to scenes he witnesses at the bottom end of India’s caste system.  Beneath the squalor of Calcutta’s streets, a cult of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, is rising.  New members are subject to unthinkable initiation rites, and in the basement of the temple itself, Luszak encounters something from a nightmare.  This nightmare, however, pales in comparison to the reality which he faces after completing his mission.  Heartbreaking beyond belief, the manner in which Luszak triumphs over this power is not only riveting but emotionally charged.  Beyond the horror and dirty streets, it is the true message of the story. 

Winner of the World Fantasy Award, Song of Kali is recommended for anyone seeking a well written story of redemption whose horror elements are but auxiliary.  As usual, Simmons’ prose is smooth and easy, stark yet evocative, not to mention the narrative he produces has an atypical structure which enhances the story’s conclusion.  Yes, Simmons does not paint a beautiful picture of India, but that is not the point.  Read for yourself and find out.

(The folks at were kind enough to put this post on their website.) 

Review of "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin

This review assumes you've read the prior four novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

As the time between builds with the publishing of each Song of Ice and Fire novel, so too does expectation.  Six years between the publishing of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons (2011) means a lot of expectations.  Was the wait worth it?  Let's see.

The short answer (and a cheating answer, beware) is: yes and no.  A Dance with Dragons has all of the flavor, dialogue, plot twists, and overall savory story that readers have come to expect of the series.  If you wanted more Song of Ice and Fire, you have it in spades.

The majority of A Dance with Dragons takes place on the Eastern continent.  Danaerys and Tyrion, after a novel's break in A Feast for Crows, return to the page, and a huge chunk of Dance follows the two--Tyrion as he attempts to remain in hiding after committing fraticide and Dany as she tries to come to terms with ruling a new kingdom while still wanting to retake the iron throne in the name of the Targaryen legacy.  But there are likewise a handful of other characters, some known and some yet unknown who finds themselves the subject of chapter points of view.  In Westeros, things in Dorne continue edge closer to conflict with the Lannisters and Tyrells, while in the North war is brewing around Winterfell.  And lastly the series returns to Jon, who like Dany and Tyrion has a large share of the chapters in Dance.  Now Commander of the Night's Watch, Jon tries his best to fill Mormont's boots while dealing with a number of problems--the wildlings, Stannis Baratheon and his red witch, and the wights not the least among them.  

While the wheel of chapter points of view in Dance spins more erratically than the first three Ice and Fire novels, it still spins.  Gears within gears as each character and house attempts to adapt to the situations constantly in flux proves just as enjoyable, leaving readers to want The Winds of Winter immediately in their hands.  (Twelve years and counting...)

The short answer "no" is based on other qualities.  While each of the first three novels in the series ended with action in Westeros ongoing, the books found convenient pauses for their final pages.  The calm before the storm brought about by Eddard's death.  The end of the battle for King's Landing.  The death of several major characters in A Storm of Swords.  All of those moments were nicely planned to provide readers a breath before jumping into the next book.  By ending some of its storylines at cliffhangers rather than convenient pauses, it would seem A Feast for Crows changed Martin's approach to delineating the volumes in his series.  A Dance with Dragons, while giving a landing spot to some of the cliffhangers in Feast, likewise ends on several cliffhangers.  

There is a devil's advocate, and this is what he says: "Feast and Dance are bridge books, and bridge books bridge the opening volumes to the closing volumes."  There is some truth in this, I admit, but I can't help but feel the series' size is starting to slip. Bursting at the seams with story, one has to wonder if the overarching story isn't suffering for the perceived need to fit everything into as few of volumes as possible.  The way things are going, the series will require three further volumes, not two.  Martin is 74 years old now, let's hope he writes faster....

If you’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire this far, the six year wait for new Westeros material will undoubtedly be satisfying in its own right.  It’s good to hear from Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Bran, Arya, Cersei, Jaime, Davos, and others again - and some of these arcs continue to sparkle, Bran and Theon’s in particular.  But when you’ve finished reading A Dance with Dragons, don’t expect to be met with any sense of satisfaction that the series has been taken to the next stage.  There are so many loose ends hanging out there now that a frayed rope is the better metaphor.  Write, George write!!

Review of "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson

Producing a book that is for once undoubtedly science fiction, Anathem finds Stephenson indirectly picking up where he left off in the Baroque Cycle.  Vast amounts of scientific knowledge are combined with theoretical speculation into a brilliant storyline.  But this one leaves the atmosphere.  

Perhaps his best yet, the events of Anathem begin on the planet of Arbe, a planet roughly analogous to earth in cultural terms, though larger in physical proportion.  Similar to Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, the scholars of Arbe are secluded in technology-free monasteries where scientific theory is studied in lieu of religion.  Accordingly, the book is rife with dialogue concerning the fundamental nature of reality, the possibility of parallel universes, as well as Stephenson’s own terminology and mythos of scientific discovery within the world of Arbe.  It’s difficult to write about the plot without giving away the major event of the book.  However, it can be revealed that the protagonist, Raz, along with others monks, are released into the secular world to resolve an ambiguity that has had the whole planet talking.  Secularites clash with theoreticians who are in turn having internal problems of their own.  How this situation resolves itself is breathtaking in scope, realistic in detail and certainly not of this earth - literally and figuratively.

Like his other books, Anathem is not a book with a moral or message.  Instead, it is an examination of theories and concepts the nerd that is Stephenson finds interesting - the 'what if?'.  That we too are interested in cosmography, camera obscura, chronography, classicism, Cartesian thought, alternate realities, parallel universes, and the like makes us as much nerds as he.  Therefore, if you enjoyed the Baroque Cycle, undoubtedly this book will be worth your while.  Be forewarned, however, Stephenson intentionally set out to include Socratic-style dialogue in Anathem.  If lengthy discussion on mathematics and science is not to your taste, you may want to pass.  I found it indispensable toward backing the turns of plot and speculation, enriching the overall experience.