philmophlegm: (Traveller: The New Era)
OK, before I get to the review, I need to get a disclaimer out of the way. This is a novel based on the Traveller RPG, written by the game's creator, Marc Miller. It was funded by a Kickstarter, which I backed. And Mr Miller is an online friend of mine. In fact, for a time, The Shop on the Borderlands was the only place outside of the US where you could buy a paperback or hardback copy.

So I would have bought this book whatever. I like Travelleresque science fiction (I may have mentioned that once or twice in the past), and obviously this is Travelleresque. However, the first thing that surprised me is that Miller didn't just write a novel about a free trader crew odd-jobbing around the Spinward Marches (in other words, the classic Traveller campaign format) or a mercenary company fighting bush wars on frontier planets against Zhodani-backed separatists (the other classic Traveller campaign format). Instead, this is something rather more ambitious. Here's the blurb:

"Jonathan Bland is a Decider, empowered by the Emperor himself to deal with the inevitable crises of empire. In the service of the Empire, he has killed more people than anyone in the history of Humanity, to save a hundred times as many. He died centuries ago, but they re-activate his recorded personality whenever a new threat appears. When the crisis is over, they expect he will meekly return to oblivion.

He has other ideas.

The chronicle of Bland reveals secrets of the history of the star-spanning Third Imperium and spans 400 years from early Imperium (about year 300) through the mid-post Civil War period (about year 700) touching known and unknown events you may have encountered in your own reading of the Imperium: everyday events, political intrigue, deadly dangers, Arbellatra, Capital, Encyclopediopolis, the Karand's Palace, and a Tigress-class Dreadnought.

If you know the Traveller science-fiction role-playing game, then some of this is already familiar; if not, no matter; this story introduces the vast human-dominated interstellar empire of the far future in ways only the designer and chronicler of this particular universe can."


With its episodic nature, the work it most reminded me of was Asimov's Foundation series, or at least the first two or three books. Neither author dwells too much on characterisation, preferring to get on with setting, plot and action. Each of Bland's activations is pretty much a self-contained short story, at least at first. As you get further into the book, longer term plot arcs make themselves felt in quite a subtle way. It's really a cleverly structured work of science fiction.

And that brings me to the second thing that surprised me about this book - it's a very accomplished piece of writing for a debut novelist. Really good in fact. Not coming from a major publisher probably counted against it in terms of awards, but it was shortlsted for the Dragon and got some Hugo buzz (although ultimately didn't make the shortlist). I read it not long after reading the much-hyped and much-awarded Ancillary Justice which I thought was pretty mediocre to be honest. This is in the same space opera sub-genre and was far, far better. In fact, it's the best novel I've read so far this year. Highly recommended. Consider it essential if you play or have played Traveller, and highly recommended if you don't or haven't but you like ambitious, high concept space opera.

And now a plug: you can still buy it from The Shop on the Borderlands! (and not from many other bookshops, at least outside of eBook formats)
philmophlegm: (Wrexham club shield)

The latest target of the PC police - Gilbert & Sullivan.

"Controversy as Chester Zoo opens 'Wrexham Scally Enclosure'". (I should point out that Homo Wrexhamius Scalliensis Chavus is pretty much confined to the southern part of Wrexham, not the nice bit where I’m from…)

Why Gandhi is such an asshole in Civilisation.

The Curious Case of the (Medieval) Weapon that Didn't Exist

Why you can't just have more quantitative easing to get rid of the national debt.

This is not a 512gb microSD card.

The worst football kits of all time. They’re all bad, but Colorado, seriously…?

This month's best headline is from an astronomy website.

"A lousy, stupid, no good, bad, law is being proposed."

Star Wars Episode IV in a single image. (OK, it’s a very big image, but still…)

Minimalist, anonymous rooms are probably not a good place to do teamwork.

"We all owe a significant debt to Richard Murphy." No, really.

I'm an only child, so I can't really relate to this. Nevertheless I thought it was a sweet film about growing up being “Player Two”.

Woman accidentally joins search party looking for herself.

Today's most widely misinterpreted piece of economics, from the IMF. There are two arguments put forward in the paper. The first is that there are risks associated with capital account liberalisation (allowing money into and out of the country with less regulation). The second is that although high public debt is bad for growth and welfare, for countries with excellent records of debt repayment, like the US, the UK and Germany, a “credible medium-term fiscal consolidation” makes more sense than a “fiscal noose today”. In other words, slowly bringing down debt as a percentage of GDP, not slashing everything to balance the budget as soon as possible. Now that’s pretty much what the UK’s current fiscal policy is. Still I suppose “IMF economists broadly agree with George Osborne” isn’t quite as good a headline as “You’re witnessing the death of neoliberalism – from within”. Seriously, this is a paper that says “There is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. The expansion of global trade has rescued millions from abject poverty. Foreign direct investment has often been a way to transfer technology and know-how to developing economies. Privatization of state-owned enterprises has in many instances led to more efficient provision of services and lowered the fiscal burden on governments”… and Facebook (and one of our less reputable newspapers) is full of idiots claiming that “we are witnessing the death of neoliberalism”.­

philmophlegm: (Far Trader)
Here's a longer review by someone who liked it more than me: http://louisedennis.livejournal.com/331044.html

Far future revenge space opera*, where the lead character used to be a starship and now isn't. Has won lots of awards, but as much internet reviewery has pointed out, that doesn't mean as much as it once did. Space opera doesn't often win awards nowadays, even science fiction ones**, which makes it all the more remarkable that this won lots of them.

As Louise mentioned, there are a couple of literary tricks / gimmicks in this book. The first actually worked well for me. It's a revenge tale and some of the chapters are present, telling the tale of the revenge, while other chapters are past, showing what happened to cause the lead character to seek revenge in the first place, and against whom. It could have been annoying, but it allowed the author to drip feed you with events from the past in a very coherent way.

But I had a big problem with the other gimmick, and it pretty much ruined the book for me. The main character comes from a culture where there are no distinctions between the sexes, and while he/she/it appreciates that there are two sexes (and often struggles to identify which one a particular character belongs to), he/she/it defaults to referring to everyone as "she". And he/she/it continues to do this even after it is established that a particular character is male. It's massively confusing, and it's made far worse because the book is written in the first person. Where we discover a character's sex, they turn out to be male more often than not, so I can't help thinking that of the three possible pronouns, "she" was less sensible as a default than either "it" or "he". Better still would be to make up a word to represent in English what a genderless pronoun would be.

I'm a very visual reader - I want to picture what characters look like. If you introduce a character as "she" and then several chapters later mention some detail that makes it clear that the character is actually male, then you're just going to annoy me. And in fact that's what happened. I gave up careful reading and visualising and ended up skimming. So I read the book pretty quickly without really enjoying it.

Actually something else of note. Although I liked the fact that the book was relatively short*** compared to others in its genre, one of the reasons it's short is that there really isn't much description. So even without the pronoun stuff, it's not a fantastic book for visual readers anyway.

It's a shame really, because there is much to like. The villain(s) of the piece is(are) interesting, the setting is quite good (lacking in detail or hinting at greater complexity are perhaps two sides of the same coin), and the writing (except for the bloody pronouns thing) is very readable. So probably a two stars out of five book for me. But it would have been four without the pronouns thing. And even then, there are far better modern space operas out there. I can't quite see why the SF elite who give out awards rank this as so much better than more popular works by the authors listed below.


* Although not the sort of space opera involving people daringly flying space fighters a la Star Wars, which the cover illustration rather implies it is. I know some people get annoyed by cover art which gives a misleading impression of a book, and I would have to put Ancillary Justice in that category.

** Total number of Hugo awards for Best Novel won by Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, David Weber, James S.A. Corey combined: Nil.
They don't even get nominated:
Total number of Hugo nominations for Best Novel for Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, David Weber, James S.A. Corey combined: Two.

*** It's probably only about one-fifth or even one-sixth the length of your typical Peter F. Hamilton brick.
philmophlegm: (NFL draft)

Here's a clever way to make interstellar travel real.

"Around 50% 'hold authoritarian views'". Sounds shocking. What’s more shocking is the ignorance of the researchers (three politics professors no less, albeit from second rate universities) as to what constitutes “authoritarian”. Authoritarians would presumably favour powerful state control, right? You know, like Stalin or Hitler or Mao. Not according to these three clowns. Apparently “ideological sympathy for… rolling back the state” is an authoritarian point of view. Incredible.

Thankfully I wasn't the only person to spot this.

Did you own a copy of Buckaroo or MouseTrap when you were a kid? There's a good chance it was assembled by Irish slaves. Seriously.

The new president of the National Union of Students sounds like a lovely girl.

The Game of Thrones Mock Draft.

The Stevland Angus Appreciation Society

Brave socio-political commentary in 'My Little Pony'. Yes, really.

The man who put 50p on Leicester City to win the Premier League at 5000/1 and cashed it out for 45p after one match (which they won 4-2).

Richard 'fuckwit' Murphy had to publically apologise to Lord Ashcroft and make a donation to his charity for being wrong. I wish the legal system could force him to make an apology every other time he’s been wrong.

Paramount is trying to claim copyright over the Klingon Language. The Language Creation Society's legal reply is wonderful.

Why are we so understanding towards the crimes of Communism? A suggestion I’ve seen elsewhere is that International Labour Day should be replaced with a day of remembrance for the victims of communism and socialism. Good idea.

Gerry Adams apologises for tweeting the word "nigger". I’m amazed at the fuss about this. Might it not have occurred to the twitter commentariat that heading a terrorist organisation responsible for the deaths of 1,800 people is ever so slightly worse than typing a naughty word into social media?

10 things the bookies thought were more likely to happen than Leicester City winning the Premier League.

When the US Navy had flying aircraft carriers.

philmophlegm: (Bush Tucker Man)

I absolutely love this series of paintings of mechs attacking early 20th century east european peasants.

The other day an RAF Chinook with a distinctive bright red tail flew right past my window. (We're high on the side of a hill and they often fly low up the river.) Turns out it was a special paint scheme for the 100th anniversary of the squadron. (Aren’t Chinooks cool? You can keep your Apaches and your Lynxes and your Merlins.)

First edition King James Bible from 1611 found in cupboard in Wrexham Parish Church. (Thanks to pellegrina.)

I didn't know that a Welshman invented packet switching.

More evidence emerges of Corbyn and McDonnell's close links with the IRA.

Scenes from the Emu War of 1932.

"Children who play video games twice a day are less likely to achieve five good GCSE grades". (Or possibly kids who don’t bother revising, and go and do fun things instead, like playing video games, are less likely to get good grades than kids who revise more. Do you think…?)

Labour MPs aren't happy at the moment. ( I particularly liked one anonymous Labour MP’s description of communist Corbyn supporter Richard Burgon as “a fucking dickhead” and Ian Austin MP’s advice to Corbyn that he “should start acting like the Leader of the Opposition and not like a student union president”.)

Hipster Hitler - a webcomic

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