Books that reflect current fears

This isn’t really a book review, but with the current extreme measures over Covid-19, it made me think of similar fictional pandemics.

19675Strangely, I’m going to start with… Tom Clancy. In his Jack Ryan novel Executive Orders. In this volume, after Jack Ryan becomes president in an incident that people compared to 9/11 (a pilot hits the Capitol with his passenger plan when the president was announcing Jack Ryan as the new vice-president, leaving Jack Ryan as president in charge of a demolishe government), a middle-eastern non-existent country decides to unleash a weaponized Ebola virus on the US while it’s trying to pull itself together. As a result, President Ryan is forced to institute a nation-wide quarantine, shutting down all gatherings and inter-state traffic. In doing so, he was calm and reassuring in the face of virulent objections, and saved a lot of people as a result.

Pity the current president isn’t quite so calm and reassuring, but we won’t get into politics.

I really enjoyed Executive Orders, even though I was a little peeved at the complete lack of mention of what happened in Canada. After all, the virus was unleashed in conventions, and guaranteed there were Canadians at those conventions.

Still, everything works out in the end

And then there are not so happy pandemic results.

149267A classic, of course is The Stand, by Stephen King. A flu-like bug engineered in a US military lab is unleashed, and as a result, most of the world’s population is wiped out, leading into a supernatural battle between good and evil. I enjoyed the book, but I even more enjoyed the mini-series staring Gary Sinese. The mini-series treated women and minorities better than the book, I found.

20170404A more recent example is Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. Tis lovely book flips between the ‘present’ after the pandemic Georgian Flu kills a majority of the world, and a troop of Shakespearean actors are traveling to bring entertainment to isolated communities because ‘survival is not enough’, and the ‘past’ during the pandemic. It’s a little silly that so many of the characters are interconnected in the post-pandemic world, but I really enjoyed the book.

13330761Finally, another book I really enjoyed was The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. In it, after (again) a Flu bug kills off the majority of humanity, two men are living in an airport, one of them an avid pilot getting in as much flying as he can before aviation flu expires (yes, apparently fuel expires). One day, while flying he picks up a signal from another airport, and he decides to go looking for more surviviors.

So, folks, stay safe and make sure not to touch your face as much as possible, and regularly wash with soap and water.

Oh, and stop hoarding toilet paper, people. It’s ridiculous.

Everyone’s favorite villains…

41884104

It didn’t occur to me until I read this book that while I’ve seen lots of book about the Nazis before and during the Second World War, I’ve never really read anything about Germany in the years after the war.

The Fourth Reich, by Gavriel D Rosenfeld, covers that period, and especially the fear that Nazis would try again. It looks at the conditions after the war, and the efforts to establish a new Nazi party, and to ensure that there would never be another Nazi party. It also looks at how the fears were projected into writing (both fiction and non-fiction) and film. I came out of the book with a list of other books I want to track down to read.

My only real disappointment with the book was that the description of the book included “He shows how postwar German history might have been very different without the fear of the Fourth Reich as a mobilizing idea to combat the right-wing forces that genuinely threatened the country’s democratic order”. I was a little disappointed by the lack of any speculation into what could have been.

Still, it opened my eyes to something I’d never thought about before. In my mind, WWII ended, and the Nazi’s were gone, at least until I became aware of the skinheads in the eighties. This book showed me the ways that the Nazi ideology continued to affect (or infect) post-war Germany, and how hard the German government (and the occupying countries like the US and UK) worked to make sure that fascism did not move back into power.

Here’s hoping that the current political problems around the world doesn’t mean that their efforts were in vain.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

Lovecraft meets *Redacted*

42201505._sx318_Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a little gem of a book. It’s actually a novella, but it’s worth the price of entry.

Gary Rendell is an astronaut, but he is lost and at least slightly crazed. We alternate between his present, wandering through a bizarre alien maze, encountering others, but not finding the other members of his mission, and the past, giving the lead up to the current mission.

In short, a probe to the outer reaches of the solar system found a giant and bizarre… structure (Gary calls it the face of a frog god) that seems to be fractal in layout. It swallows the probe, but the probe eventually reappears, sending readings that indicate that the structure may actually be a portal to other worlds. After much political fighting, an international mission is sent out to explore the structure. Gary is a member of the mission.

Once there, they find a half-built rocket that looks like something out of a pulp magazine, but is unimaginably ancient. a ‘landing’ party, including our protagonist, is sent down to establish a base and start exploring, which is of course when things go horribly wrong.

I will admit, I spent most of my book thinking of this book as a modern equivalent to Lovecraft. As a result, it wasn’t until the last few pages that I finally figured what classic piece this book was also a retelling of. It was that realization that bumped up my appreciation of the story. I won’t say what it was a retelling of, since I don’t want to spoil it for other people.

But I will say that if you are a fan of the cosmic horror that Lovecraft praised, you will like this book.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

Siri or SkyNet?

42199063._sy475_

As someone who works with computers every day (my job is as a software tester), AI is a topic that I’ve kept an eye on over the years. Initially, AI was an SF trope (HAL, SkyNet, Data on Star Trek TNG), but in recent years, there’s Siri and Alexa and all the other digital assistants.

But AI is also the algorithms that decide which Google results you see, or which posts appear at the top of your Facebook feed, but those are so invisible that no one thinks about it unless there’s a news story about conservatives complaining that Facebook filters them out of people’s news feeds. Also, AI often is filtering out applications to jobs, which is even more problematic. Last year, Amazon pulled their AI filters because it was filtering out women, since the training data for the AI was based on past discriminatory hiring. If your past involves hiring mostly white men, the AI is going to start filtering out non-whites and women.

This last is one of the things that leans into this new book about AI, the companies actively working on the code, both in North America and China, and where it is going.

The Big Nine, by Amy Webb, is divided into three distinct sections.

1) The companies (and governments) working on AI. Primarily, three companies in China and six companies in North America. Ms Webb goes into the history of their work and where they are heading.

2) Issues that need to be fixed in this development. This includes the mono-cultures within the companies (their employees mainly come from the same sorts of backgrounds and schools, with a lack of training outside of coding). She points out the problems with datasets built by people who don’t think of diversity, and the need for programmers to consider things outside of their schooling, like ethics for example. The results of this ranges from the innocuous (photo tagging AIs suggesting ‘gorilla’ for a photo of an African-American face) to the problematic (digital assistants that can’t understand accents). And in the future, will someone be saying, like Ian Malcom in Jurassic Park, ‘Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should’

3) In the third sections Ms Webb indulges in a thought experiment, presents three futures for AI that are ‘good’, ‘continuing on the same path’ and ‘negative’.

I will say, though, her ‘good’ scenario was to me ‘not as bad as it could be’. It was still a little unnerving as a vision of the future. But mind you, I am a software tester who doesn’t even have a cell phone, so take that for what it may be. It left me wanting to say ‘get off my lawn!’.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

Real life can be more thrilling than a thriller…

41723165Well, it’s been a long summer, where I have been very flighty with my reading, and even more so with posting. I have been reading, however, so now it’s time to start posting reviews again. I read some fantastic books, and some pure fluff. Hey, summer is a great time for fluff.

Station Blackout by Charles A Casto is anything but fluff. In fact, a large part of it read more like a thriller. It follows what happened in the minutes, days and months after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant problems after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

The timing of this book is coincidental, but for people who were pulled into the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, Station Blackout is a great read for the people who wanted more after the miniseries was over. The book sucks you in, investing you in the men and women who worked at great danger to themselves to try an avoid a disaster even greater than what happened in Chernobyl.

And around the intense story of what happened is an examination of leadership and how it can help or hinder in a crisis. These parts include things that readers can incorporate into their own lives as needed. The author clearly knows what he is talking about.

My only complaint was that after the intensity of the start of the book, the end sort of dribbles away. Mind you, that is the way real crises go. All the adrenaline is at the start, but the cleanup goes on for years, as do the investigations.

Hopefully the nuclear industry has learned from the mistakes that were made, and hopefully the real heroes are still lauded in Japan.

It’s 24 Hour Readathon Time!

For more information, check out http://www.24hourreadathon.com

Reading starts at 8am EST,. I never make it the full 24 hours, but it’s fun to see how much reading I can do, paper, ebook or audiobook.

10am and it’s two hours in. This is the perfect sort of day for fun adventure novels. I read Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels when I was younger (I loved the movie version of Raise the Titanic, but the less said about Sahara the better). Now I’ve developed a taste for the spinoff NUMA Files series. I’m reading Ghost Sip, the 12th in the series, and I’ve read 170 pages already. 3 more hours and I should be finished. I usually drop into short novels for these readathons, but this is a quick reading book. Later, I have a nonfiction book to finish, and those always take longer.

11am and my middle-aged eyes are asking for a break. So, after another 90 pages of ghost ship, Im flipping over to The Witches by Stacy Schiff. I’m already 5 hours into this one, so today is a good day to aim for the halfway mark.

2pm, and I have listened to 3:40 of The Witches. Stacy Schiff does a great job of telling the story with a slightly sarcastic tone. Now it’s time to go in hunt of food.

4:30pm… I went, I ate (and read another 20 pages of Gavriel D Rosenfeld’s The Fourth Reich (which I’m kind of hoping to finish this weekend). And then, on the way home, I ended up being pulled into a discussion about condo matters ahead of an upcoming information meeting. It’s going to be… interesting. Now that I’m inside, back to The Fourth Reich. (Note: in the 2.5 hours, there was one hour of reading. Like I said, non-fiction is slower reading.

6pm, and it has been ten hours. I read another 30 pages of The Fourth Reich, with 35 left to finish it. I plan to push through that before going back to Ghost Ship to finish it before I start to crash.

8pm and I have finally finished The Fourth Reich. Now it’s time to finish Ghost Ship, which will take 2 hours or so. At this point I am over 400 pages today, including the equivalent in the audiobook.

11pm and I think it’s time to crash out for the night. I finished Ghost Ship, read a little fan fiction, and started into In An Absent Dream, by Seanan Mcguire. I’m setting the alarm early enough to read at least one more hour in the morning before the 24 hours is up.

8am on Sunday, and it’s over. I listened to another hour of The Witches, and read a chapter of In An Absent Dream.

Roundup

Ghost Ship by Clive Cussler – 396 pages read, book finished

The Fourth Reich by Gavriel D Rosenfeld – 82 pages read, book finished

The Witches by Stacy Schiff- 4:45 hours listened to, equivalent of over 100 pages

In An Absent Dream by Seanan Mcguire – 36 pages read

Total, over 600 pages. I read more as a kid, but middle-aged eyes aren’t up to that anymore.

Summer reading in winter…

39971767Sometimes, reading a book can be the adventure you would like to go, if not for money or time or many other reasons.

Coves of Departure, by John Seibert Farnsworth, is more along the lines of the adventure that sounds cool, but hopefully wouldn’t be popular. Kayaking off the coast of Baja California to study delicate ecosystems. Travelling into the desert to observe buzzards. Things that sound intriguing, but it would be better for the environment that the average person didn’t do it. For that matter, I probably wouldn’t be able to handle the physical side of things.

Still, reading this book let me experience things second-hand, since Farnsworth definitely paints a vivid picture for the reader. I found myself sinking into the book, slowing down, as if I was reading it in a summer heat-wave instead of a cold winter. It also slowed me further as I took side-trips into the internet to look up the wildlife he describes

Very much recommended to anyone who loves reading about the environment. I look forward to seeing what the author does next.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for letting me read this

It’s Readathon Time!

It’s the 24 in 48 Readathon this weekend. I’m not going to do hourly updates, though. Instead, I’m going to update as I finish books.

7:40 am – Book one finished (I had less than 50 pages to go) was The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson, which was also a book for the Read Harder Challenge (a true crime book about a non violent crime) a fascinating read about salmon fly tiers, and the lengths they go to for exotic feathers.

1pm – along with a trip to the doctor’s to get the results of my shoulder ultrasound (no tears, so exercise and stretching until it gets better), drop off a library book and hit The Works for lunch. Along with all that, I finished Kingdom Of Needle and Bone, the new Subterranean Press novella from Mira Grant. Fabulous read, As usual from her.

6:30 pm – After a much needed nap, I finished I Met A Traveller In An Antique Lad, a Connie Willis novella, also from Subterranean Press. I also have been listening to a Clive Cussler audiobook and read a little fan fiction as a bit of junk food.

At bedtime last night, I’d read for 10:09. I’m halfway through a collection of short stories, and there was 4 hours left in an audiobook, for a total of the equivalent of 400 pages. I’ll definitely finish both today and I’ve got a couple more books waiting in the wings.

2:30 pm – Finished the audiobook of Sea of Greed by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Always fun in audiobook. I also finished The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories by Teresa Solana, translated from Catalan. Highly entertaining crime stories, full of black humour.

9:45 pm – I ended up not finishing anything else. My eyes are burning, so I went back to an audiobook that had been stopped for a library book, and listened to a couple of hours of that, around the family Sunday dinner.

In the end, I made it to 20:15. It’s looking like 20 hours is pretty much the max I can do in two days.

Wizards can’t solve everything

38085968As the world is on the brink of World War Three, suddenly wizards appear, destroying all of the world’s nuclear weapons, and taking control of the world. In Wizards Rising: The Cataclysm, four of them take control of North America for only three years (or so they say). A social worker, Amanda, wins the position of Supreme Liaison between the ordinary people and the wizards, and finds herself torn in different directs as she starts to learn more about the wizards and their society and what they are really looking to do with the world.

A nice part of the novel is that every time I started to think ‘that’s a little ridiculous’, the author threw in a little twist that made that ridiculous element make perfect sense. The wizards are supremely powerful, but seem immature, but there is a reason for that. They place arbitrary limits on the age of people applying to the Supreme Liaison position, and fill it through a process that seems more appropriate to a reality television show, but there’s a reason for that.

I also appreciated the fact that there was no quick and easy fix at the end.

While not a perfect read (I wanted to know more about what was happening outside of North America, as well as more about the Wizarding culture), I do hope there will be a sequel, since the world has been completely altered in the end, and I’d like to see what happens next. This book also goes to show that self-published doesn’t mean bad. Sometimes it just means that the subject matter doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream publishing houses.

Agatha Christie on Mars

36262384I love a good mystery, and one of my favorite classics is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which a group of people, each with their own dark secrets, are trapped on an island, dying one by one.

It is easy to see how that book was likely an inspiration for this novel.

As One Way starts, Frank Kittridge is in prison for killing his son’s drug dealer. He has no contact with his now ex-wife and son, and is just existing. Then a man from the company that runs the prison presents him with a way out. But not on Earth. They are recruiting prisoners to go to Mars to build the base for the scientists and astronauts that would follow. Thinking that this would give his son something to be proud of, Frank agrees.

The training is tough, with his only real contact being other convicts being trained, and a guard who is a sadist. And before he really feels they are ready for it, Frank and the others, along with the sadist, are loaded into the rocket as frozen cargo and sent to Mars.

Of course, everything starts going wrong. First, part of the early loads sent to Mars went off-course slighting, and are at the absolute limit of what they can reach, and without those loads, they are dead. Retrieving the first one also results in the death of one of the team due to a fault in her spacesuit. She is the first death, but not the last. The convicts are working hard, and dying one by one until the last few realize that it isn’t just accident, but they are being murdered. But on a team of all murderers, who do you suspect.

I did have a couple of little issues with the plotting. No one realizes who the killer is or why until the very end, which is a little silly. No one is that trusting. I also don’t know how the company thought that they could cover everything up. Really? And why was there addictive drugs on the ship? One character dies of an overdose, and another develops and addiction, which leaves me wondering how it was that dangerous drugs were sent.

And I get the feeling that the author didn’t really know what to do with his female characters. There are two among the convicts, and they both die almost immediately on arrival on Mars, like he couldn’t wait to get rid of them rather than dealing with the complications that being female in an isolated, mostly male, group. I wish he could have done more with them.

Still, while I had figured out whodunnit and why well before the still living characters did, the book was a good read, and I look forward to the second book in the series.