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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Hugh Howey’s story ‘The Plagiarist’ has been around for awhile, but it felt pretty timely when I got around to reading it.  The gaming world has been saturated with stories about ‘Sim City’, an excellent (albeit flawed) game about planning and running a simulated city.  The Plagiarist is about a man, and an entire society, that loses itself in those same type of simulations.

Howey’s story takes places in the near future where games like Sim City have been combined with artificial intelligence to a degree that the characters in the simulation are essentially people in their own right.  Universities and corporations run server farms dedicated to these artificial worlds where the software citizens are as intelligent as we are and they’re allowed to develop in their own ways.  Thanks to the time dilation (time moves quicker in the sim than in reality) scientists are able to study aspects of their fields they can’t otherwise see.  Geologists use them to study planet formation.  Psychologists and anthropoligists use them to study relationships without the observer interefering.  The simulation is so good that the simulated people have started doing their own independent research and found interesting new inventions and cures that never came up in our world.  An entire profession has sprung up where practitioners go into the simulation and bring details from these simulated advancements for use in the real world.   The protaganist is a literature professor who has a side hobby of searching the simulations for the next William Shakespeare.   The story begins at a point where the simulated worlds have started their own simulated worlds.

The Plaigarist is a very plausible extrapolation of current trends in internet usage, social media, and computing will probably take us in the near future.  It raises some very interesting questions about identity, and reality versus virtual spaces.  It’s also a great sneak peak at the ethical issues we’ll be confronting as software gets more lifelike and potentially learns to think for itself.  It’s available as an e-book .

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Tor publishing has an interesting expirement going on right now.   Tor has been publishing John Scalzi’s The Human Division weekly since mid January as an experiment in episodic fiction.  On the eve of finishing the volume (the last episode is out tomorrow), the experiment seems to be a success .  I’m not going to spend a lot of time reviewing the story itself, suffice to say it’s really good and woe be unto anyone who expects me to get work done on Tuesday mornings before I’ve finished the new installment.  I do want to spend a few words on how the weekly publication has played out for me.

 From the outset weekly publishing had one very obvious benefit for me, though I suspect I’m in the minority about this one.  The trademark Scalzi wit is snarky and irreverent with a liberal dosing of goofy.  This is, after all, the same man who wrote a story about yogurt taking over the world.  I do enjoy his work (and I’m in awe of the universe he has set up) but I’m not the biggest fan of humor in my sci-fi and too much joking gets grating after a while.  So while a week seems like a long time to wait for the next plot point, it ended up being just right for keeping me from getting tired of snark.  (This is a minority opinion on my part based on the success of Scalzi’s last novel, Redshirts.  Not to mention the complete works of Douglas Adams…)

When the episodes were announced I expected a regular novel chopped into bite size pieces, possibly with an extra cliff-hanger or two to keep readers ‘tuning in next week’.  What I got was worlds better than that.  The story is specifically designed to be presented as pieces.  Tor and Scalzi have likened it to a season of television with a semi-self-contained plot each week bound together by an over-arching story to keep readers coming back.  Even that analogy is a bit lacking because several of the episodes take place on the fringe of the main plot and don’t include the primary characters at all.  I’ve found it best described as complimentary short stories.  The jumping around was surprising but it came together well over the course of the overall story.

I do find myself wondering if the story is going to suffer from a lack of integration now that it’s going to be available as a whole.  Tor is publishing a hard back of the entire thing in novel form and I’m interested to see how those who read it all at once feel about it.  It hangs together much better as a series of stories and seems like it would be very choppy and jarring to jump around a full novel this way.  Quite a few interesting characters are presented and discarded in various weekly installations and I suspect that would be really frustrating to a reader going through it all at once.

The last benefit I want to point out is fiscal.  As the dad of twins who need TWO OF EVERYTHING I found a small dollar amount every week a lot more palatable than the $25 purchase price of a full flown novel.  All I had to do was skip a trip to the vending machine every Tuesday and I got a fun read in return.

I highly recommend The Human Division.  Anyone can enjoy it, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you’ve read at least a little of Scalzi’s previous work in this universe (Old Man’s World, The Ghost Brigades).  I also recommend you read it with a time gap between installments.  If not a week, then at least a day or two.  If you’re on the fence, this story over at Tor introduces the major characters of The Human Division and is a good indicator of the writing style.

 I’m curious to hear what Tor and Scalzi have to say about the results of their episodic experiment, but from a reader’s point of view I’d declare it a success.  I’m not interested in giving up long form novels, but this is a great compliment to that form of reading and I hope Tor continues trying it in this form of complimentary episodes that Scalzi has pioneered for them.

 This is not strictly related to above, but I want to give a shout-out to Tor for the free short fiction on their web site.  They’re great about publishing new stories from some of my favorite authors and exposing me to new ones via stories and excerpts.

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Starting October off right…

In honor of the beginning of October, I’m highly recommending you go read this story written by my friend Betsy Phillips and published in the September, 2011 issue of Apex Magazine.  I don’t want to give anything away because that would ruin the fun of it, but let’s just say it’s a zombie story.  It’s not very reminiscent of the way pop culture usually presents zombies, you won’t find anything reminiscent of George Romero or Robert Kirkman

The story opens with a driving lesson.  This mundane opening scene may make you wonder if you’re reading the right story.  Never fear though, things go creepy pretty quick. 

The pacing and economy of the story telling are what really make me a fan.  Things unfold a little at a time and just when you think you’re clear about what’s going on a new, supremely creepy, revelation comes out.  Phillips specializes in setting a creepy scene without veering into outright horror and this subtlety embues the story with the feeling that everything going on could happen at any time.  The horrible things going on are presented so matter of fact that you don’t always realize what was just said until you’re two sentences past it.

On a more academic note… I usually try not to over think my reading, but I really have to wonder if Phillips intended the story to be a metaphor for how day-to-day life makes us all into zombies and the toll that takes on our relationships.

If you like the story, you might want to look at some of Phillips’ other work.  She wrote a book of Nashville ghost stories, and she links to some of her other work on her blog.

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I’m a great fan of gossip and behind-the-scenes books and shows. I’m also history AND genres like science fiction and horror. So the idea that one of America’s greatest presidents was a secret vampire hunter was fascinating to me. I’ve been aware of the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter book for some time, but I hadn’t picked up until I saw the movie come out. Both were a little lacking to me, in different ways, so this one has the makings of a good ‘Book vs Movie’ post. This is the third book versus movie post I’ve done (see previously: Psycho, and I Am Number Four). It’s very surprising to me that this is the first one that the book actually won.

The plot of both is essentially as expected based on the name. They start with young Abe who is inspired to become a vampire hunter due to the death of his mother at the hands of a vampire. Abe becomes (spoiler alert) President of the United States on the eve of the American Civil War and is commander in chief through the end. They both suppose a fairly large vampire population in the United States. The vampires have been manipulating the southern states so that they can live in the open and have a country of their own. One of the major reasons the southern states clung tenaciously to the institution of slavery was so that the vampires could have an easy source of food. The vampires manipulate the start of the war and participate even to the point of joining Confederate troops on the battle field.

The book was written in a documentary format liberally sprinkled with real and imaginary quotes from Lincoln himself. It weaves in real life historical figures from Lincoln’s time, including a Jefferson Davis dedicated to vampire domination. This style got the job done but I found it hard to really get into the story because of the text book style. The movie obviously doesn’t have that short coming, but it suffered due to the extended time period covered.

Lincoln lived to be 56, and both the book and movie cover at least 50 years of that. The movie impressively kept things moving without bogging down but the extended time jumps made it choppy and a bit difficult to follow. The book didn’t have to keep to a two hour running time so it provided much more detail and made the time transitions a little more smoothly. It also included enough real history to make it feel more realistic, but I’m not a Lincoln scholar so your mileage may vary on this point.

I enjoyed the action sequences in the movie and it used a slow motion style pretty common these days (pioneered by The Matrix). It certainly kept things interesting and Abe’s gadgets and axe handling skills were impressive albiet entirely unrealistic. I did have a bit of a problem with two points in the movie. In the first Lincoln is getting some training from his mentor Henry and manages to shatter a tree trunk in one blow (seen at the 1:18 mark in the trailer above). To me this implied some super human ability, but it was ignored for the rest of the movie. I also felt a horse chase scene was pretty unrealistic and ludicrous, and that’s saying a lot considering the expectations I had based on the movie name.

It was a close race, but I give the book the win this time. The action was a lot of fun and I enjoyed the filming style of the movie, but the choppy plot got to me in a way the book didn’t. I saw the movie before I read the book, so I may have been influenced by imagining the action set pieces as I read the equivalent passages in the book but I still give the book the nod.

If you’re contemplating one or the other, you may want to catch the movie first and see how you feel about the basic ludicrous nature of the plot. If you’re okay with that, then I would pick up the book to fill in the blanks. There’s surprisingly little repetition between the two and I had no trouble watching the movie and reading the book sequentially, which is not usually the case.

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For the less literal, more artsy minded folks out there, here’s another interesting Game of Thrones map to follow up my last post on the topic.  Artist J.E. Fullerton put together some great full color stylized maps with illustrations of lots of the characters and creatures from the books.  He also has detail maps of a lot of the story locations.  It’s too bad he isn’t able to sell these because they would look even better on my wall than the last map I posted.  I understand that George R.R. Martin, author of the series is putting out a map folio sometime this fall so I hold out hope Martin acquired these to include because I’d love to legally own them.

 

Once again, thanks to io9 for bringing these to my attention.

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Game of Thrones map geekery

I’m a huge fan of maps. As a kid I used to love to drag out my dad’s Rand McNally road atlas and study it before any big trips. Half the fun was always looking at all the places I was going to see and imagining what it would be like. I don’t spend as much of my free time looking at maps these days, but I’ve been known to lose an hour or two of my life on Google Maps. It’s pretty much the ultimate dream for that little kid. A road map AND real satellite photography to see even more stuff…

The map love also extends to fake maps. That may even be why I started reading fantasy as a kid, the really good fantasy books always had maps in the front. I remember reading Sword of Shannarra and constantly turning to the map in the front so I could follow the characters’ travels. (And complain about the low quality of the map.)

So I was pretty excited when I ran across this serious looking map for the Game of Thrones saga. The internet is lousy with GoT maps, and HBO has a really nice interactive version to go with their Game of Thrones show, but this one is extra special. The map itself was created by a dedicated fan, but another fan went back and traced the paths of the various major characters on the map so it’s easy to visualize where everyone is going. There are some physical problems with the map. It’s so high resolution that I can’t zoom out to see the entire continent without losing all the detail even with dual 17 inch monitors, and it’s very difficult to keep track of which line goes with which character since it covers thousands of pages worth of travel (5 books worth). Some of the more popular areas get pretty muddled.

I’d be lieing if I said I wasn’t tempted to print it out poster size on the giant plotter at work that we use for bridge plans. It would make a really good wall display if the wife would let me hang it. Many props to serMountainGoat for putting together the original map and PrivateMajor for putting on the character lines. serMountainGoat’s animated timeline feature is also pretty great. And a hat tip to io9 for showing me this in the first place.

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Before I get into this review let’s just have a little warning. If you’re familiar with Kevin Smith you probably know what you’re getting into. If you’re not familiar with Kevin Smith… the dedication of this book mentions his ‘wife’s brown eye’. There’s a lot of Smith’s general brand of ‘dick and fart’ humor and more than a little discussion of how hot his wife is and how lucky he is to have sex with her. So, business as usual for Kevin Smith.

I picked this one up because Smith is a bit of a controversial figure who tends to say what he thinks so I was looking for some interesting gossip, and I wasn’t disappointed. He shares a lot of interesting behind the scenes info on his fight with the MPAA ratings board for his movie ‘Zack and Miri Shoot a Porno’ and he takes Bruce Willis to task for some problems during ‘Cop Out’. He also has a lot to say about his most recent movie ‘Red State’ and his efforts to keep it truly independent of the Hollywood studio system.

Smith likes to portray himself as a fat, lazy stoner who fell into a lot of good fortune. I view that a lot like I view Tina Fey’s portrayal of herself as an awkward, funny looking schlub. Maybe it was true at one time, but it sure isn’t true now. I’m not going to address the hot potato ‘fat’ portion of his usual schtick, but it’s pretty obvious he isn’t simply lazy. Even his own story about how he hit big with ‘Clerks’, his first film, shows that a fair amount of work went into getting it bought by Miramax pictures. A lot of Smith’s success has come from his active engagement with his fans by way of his website and prolific speaking tours. So maybe he is lazy, but he’s a lazy guy that works for what he wants.

Like I said above, I read the book for the gossip and because I respect Smith for saying what he really thinks. But I ended up finding some actual good life advice as well. Smith’s core point seems to boil down to that doing something is better than doing nothing. If you have a dream of doing something then work on it. Dreams are fun but they don’t happen unless you try. The book subtitle (Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good) is probably a bit of false modesty but also has a fair amount of truth. When he started, Smith had no idea how to make a movie, much less get people to watch it, but he persevered and learned as he went along.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who’s a fan of Kevin Smith, or who is okay with some serious raunchy humor. It’s got some interesting behind the scenes info and motivation for anyone not happy with their current life situation. But if you don’t like bathroom humor and sex talk I’d stay away.

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