Saturday, March 29, 2014

[Book Review] Nexus

Nexus / Ramez Naam (Powell's Books)

The singularity is nigh, and we are it.  What happens when technology allows us to transcend the bounds of humanity?  Who controls it, who uses it?  Do we fear it, embrace it, improve ourselves, or abuse it?

Kade is a brilliant scientist and dreamer, and is one of the minds behind a breakthrough in an experimental nano-drug allowing mind to mind networking.  They've transmuted Nexus from an ephemeral temporary experience to an operating system that can be fully integrated into your brain, complete with the ability to run programs that effect your whole body.  He and his friends see Nexus as an opportunity to improve life for everyone, increasing empathy and knowledge.  Unfortunately the United States government sees the dangers of Nexus and none of the benefit, marking he research of Kade and his companions as a threat to humanity and stripping them of basic legal protection for their perceived crimes.

Now Kade is a reluctant asset for the Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD), with his friends' freedom riding on his compliance in targeting one of the greatest technological minds in existence.  Someone Kade admires for her brilliant innovation and vision, and someone who the ERD believe is responsible for illegal, humanity threatening research as well as the use of such research to manipulate governments and incite terror.

But Kade's not the only one experimenting with Nexus, Nexus is not illegal everywhere, and nothing is as clear cut as it seems.  Is humanity on the brink of evolution or on the brink of a war between humans and post-humans?


Nexus was the Virtual Speculation pick for March, next month we will be reading Alif : the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson.  In the mean time I hope this review piques your interest and that the discussion questions are of use.

Discussion Fodder:
  • "Kade had never asked anyone their sign before.  He supposed in a way he still hadn't.  The software had done that with his mouth and lungs.  Did that count?" (pg. 9).  At various points throughout the book someone's behavior and action is influenced or completely controlled by Nexus applications, is it still you doing something when this happens?
  • What do you think about the parallels between Nexus and LSD or counter-culture?  Do you see parallels in the Nexus party experiments and Ken Kesey & The Merry Prankster's Acid Tests, or between Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" and the "Close Door and Open Mind As You Enter" sign at the party?
  • There are many different stances on ethics concerning Nexus, the responsibilities of a scientist, and the sharing of information.  Kade repeatedly feels that as a scientist he must take responsibility for the repercussions of his actions, but how far does that go?  Some believe that information must be free, others believe that the dangers outweigh the good.  Is it ethical to limit the growth of humanity, the quality of life?  On the flip side, is it ethical to release technology that allows for the complete exploitation of someone's body?  Who is responsible for the atrocities enacted with this technology?
  • Do you think that the fictional history is plausible as technology advances? What do you think of some of the technology in Nexus (such as home blood test cancer screening)?
  • What do you think about the decision to assign Sam to the Nexus missions?  Is she the one who could best understand the dangers or is she the weakest link?  Is it ethical for her to be on the mission?
  • A strong case is made for the spiritual potential for something like Nexus, particularly by the Buddhist monks.  How might Nexus effect other religions and spiritualities?  How might it effect concepts of zen and nirvana?  Is a single humanity nirvana?
  • What is the line that separates human from trans/post human?  What do you think are the implications and repercussions of this "evolution'?  Is the danger in the change occurring quickly or slowly?
  • Is the opportunity for group intelligence an elevation or a danger?  Are we looking at a pathway to greater thought and creativity or to a hive mind or borg?
  • "Scientists have to show respect for the law, Professior," Franks replied.  "Perhaps the law should show respect for science instead, Doctor." (pg. 155).  Where is the line that law should control science, and where is the line where science should control the law?
  • "But through history, when people have had the chance to use technology to improve their own lives, they've done a lot of good along with the harm.  The good has more than outweighed the bad.  Dramatically so.  That's the only reason we're here today." (pg. 274)  What do you think about this statement?  Is it true?  Optimistic?  Misguided?
  • "We find that the Constitution guarantees protections only to human persons.  Non-human persons such as those created by the combination of non-human genes with human genes, by the integration of technology that affords non-human abilities, or by any significant deviation from the existing spectrum of human characteristics, are afforded no special protections.  As such, Congress and the states may legislate the status of non-human persons without regard to the Constitutional protections afforded to humans." (pg. 288) What do you think about the potential for abuse of this ruling (even with today's technology)?
  • What are the implications of children born with Nexus in their system?  What problems would be faced in integrating "posthuman" children into a still "human" society?
  • Is technology advancement a 'cold war'?  What do you think about the 'arms race' and escalation that takes place in Nexus?

Friday, March 28, 2014

[Book Review] Peacemaker

Peacemaker / Marianne De Pierres (Powell's Books)
Virgin Jackson is the senior ranger in Birrimun Park – the world’s last natural landscape, overshadowed though it is by a sprawling coastal megacity. She maintains public safety and order in the park, but her bosses have brought out a hotshot cowboy to help her catch some drug runners who are affecting tourism. She senses the company is holding something back from her, and she’s not keen on working with an outsider like Nate Sixkiller.
When an imaginary animal from her troubled teenage years reappears, Virgin takes it to mean one of two things: a breakdown (hers!) or a warning. When the dead bodies start piling up around her and Nate, she decides on the latter.
Something terrible is about to happen in the park and Virgin and her new partner are standing in its path…
Set in a potential near-future, Peacemaker delivers blending of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Western through the experiences of Virgin Jackson.  As an American, Australia brings to mind large cities separated by large stretches of land only occupied by small towns.  This is not the Australia that Virgin Jackson lives in, but is one that she would love, one with fewer people and where nature exists outside of a reserve.

It started out like a normal day for Virgin, and probably would have stayed that way had she not ducked back inside the park after closing to retrieve her dropped phone.  A chance encounter with intruders leaves her with a dead body, a missing person, and running late to pick up the investigator Nate Sixkiller from the airport.  Things just get more complicated for Virgin, who is not one to take anything lying down.  The lead investigator on the incident has it in for Virgin, people keep trying to kill her, the bounds of reality seem to be slipping, and Nate seems to know way more than he is willing to explain.

The technology is advanced but stays within the realms of what we could be building towards rather than relying on pure fantastic, and the story integrates elements of mythology and spirituality without dissolving into magic.  Virgin Jackson and Nate Sixkiller are strongly realized characters, with their own flaws and strengths.

The ending could be a bit too perfectly tied together, when the hidden players are revealed, or it could be considered a fantastic twist.  I recommend reading and making up your own mind.

Peacemaker is the first book in a series, and is also available as a digital comic.  See more and other titles at the author's website (http://www.mariannedepierres.com/).

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

[Book Review] From Every Bitter Thing

From Every Bitter Thing : The Real Story of Guenevere and Lancelot / Robert Rice
From Every Bitter Thing is the story of Guenevere, a woman raised in a matriarchal Pict society who is sacrificed, first to the ambitions of her father, the king, and then to the goals of Arthur, the husband forced upon her by political expedience. In the patriarchal and increasingly Christian society of post-Roman Britain, Guenevere is determined to set her own spiritual course, a course made infinitely more difficult when she falls in love with Lancelot, the peasant mercenary whom she has hired to protect her. Her quest is not to unify England or discover the Holy Grail but to find freedom to follow her own life’s path.

A character-driven drama, From Every Bitter Thing views the often-misunderstood story of Guenevere through a historical lens, but is also a winning tale of heroism, glory, and romance. What gives the story contemporary resonance is its concern, albeit low-keyed, for more transcendental themes in a world as much spiritually as physically under threat. More than just another reenactment of the usual King Arthur legend, From Every Bitter Thing is a spellbinding account of a world teetering on a new dark age.
I'm not sure completely what to make of this book.  First of all is the premise, where the author states in a preface that he has personally examined a document known as the Gwenhwyfar manuscript and that this novel is the unaltered "substance of the story, but have taken the liberty to modernize the form to make it easier to read."  I'm just not convinced that this story is at all strongly based on actual historical documents.  Even with modernized language, the themes are just far too modern in feel and sensibility.

From Every Bitter Thing is definitely a unique take on the Arthurian legend, but falls short of standing out as a "winning tale of heroism, glory, and romance."  Instead we get a tale of politics, religious upheaval, ill-fated romance, and desperation.  For me perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the small amount reserved for a hermit that Lancelot meets.  Guenevere is well acquainted with the duplicity of men in power, including attempts on her life by her own father, yet believes that words on a paper will be honored by the man she was married to in a war bargain.  In many ways it feels as if the characters of Morgaine/Morgana and Guenevere were merged into one through the pagan priestess role, though Arthur still has a son by his (unnamed) sister.

An interesting book for those enamored with the Arthurian legend, but not an overwhelmingly thrilling or compelling one when stood up against the incredible body of fiction already in existence telling the stories of Arthur and Guenevere.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

[Book Review] Don't Even Think About It

Don't Even Think About It / Sarah Mlynowski

Secrets. Scandals. ESP. A terrific and sexy new novel about a group of Tribeca teens from Sarah Mlynowski that will immediately appeal to fans of realistic fiction as well as readers who enjoy a little magic.

This book had so much promise.  I picked up this book not expecting anything remotely resembling fine literature, but rather something cheeky, hilarious, and probably a bit cheesy.  Unfortunately it failed to deliver.

Juggling 20+ narrators, their thoughts, and the overheard thoughts of those around them is definitely tricky.  People also think many inane and embarrassing things.  While I give the author kudos for attempting to handle this, to pull it off the ESP needs to have more limits just for the consistency, scope, and flow of the story, OR needs to be significantly more detailed and involved which would easily bog down the story.  Instead the story rotates through a range of characters of limited personality in a world where everyone thinks in focused complete sentences.

The premise is that a tainted batch of vaccine results in this group of kids developing telepathy, a process that changes how they interact with the world around them and largely serves to remove social nicety filters.  It doesn't remove snap judgement or add to the ability to understand eachother's feelings though, just allows for better propagation of drama.  The powers that be realize they messed up, offer the families probably less than any of the parent's individual annual salaries to take a cure and not talk about it to anyone (let's skip over the whole remarkable speed at which a cure was developed and the fact that the preference is to cover up rather than study actual cases of telepathy).  Drama occurs, kid's decide if they want to stay "espies," and in the end everyone is just a-OK with what they decide.

This may be a bit of a nitpick but I have trouble with ESP that has no empathy component.  I know it isn't required, but let's be honest, people don't necessarily always think in words, and definitely not always in complete sentences.  A train of thought may involve single words, sounds, remembered scents, emotions, images, sensations, etc.  Maybe I'm more picking up on this because in so many works of science fiction and fantasy emotions do come through at least in some level through ESP.

Over all my biggest issue with this book is it seems to assume the readers are idiots.  I substitute teach elementary through high school, and while many of the classes may make me despair for the future of humanity, there are a lot of very bright kids.  This book is targeted at teens but reads as if it's written for pre-teens.  A book for 8-year-olds who want to read about the secret and scandalous life of the nearly 16.

Friday, March 14, 2014

[Book Review] The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn is one of the most beautiful works of prose that I have read.  The story is both timeless and ageless, with layers and depth to appeal to both children and adults. I'm not sure why I never read this book when I was younger, some how it just never crossed my path and I never sought it out.  Whenever I read it I notice different little details, and for a book published 46 years ago remains incredibly fresh and new.


I was inspired to use The Last Unicorn as the first pick for Virtual Speculation.  It's a short book that many of us had read before, so it fit well for a short month in the opening of an experimental book club.  Only a few of us were able to meet (online) to discuss the book, and one of us was heavily medicated for a cold, but we had a great time discussing the book.

Discussion Fodder:
  • Themes to discuss: identity, humanity, reality, mortality, morality.
  • What makes it a time for unicorns?  What are unicorns for? ("Would you call this a good age for unicorns? "No, but I wonder if any man before us ever thought his time a good time for unicorns."; "Unicorns are not to be forgiven [...] Unicorns are for beginnings," he said, "for innocence and purity, for newness.  Unicorns are for young girls."  Molly was stroking the unicorn's throat as timidly as though she were blind.  She dried her grimy tears on teh white mane.  "You don't know much about unicorns,")
  • Is The Last Unicorn anachronistic?  When does it take place?  (The butterfly's song, medieval elements, Lir reading a magazine, the references to Robin Hood and John Henry.)
  • What do you think about the passage of time in the book?  It is never indicated exactly how long the unicorn travels.  "Time had always passed her by in the forest, but now it was she who passed through time as she traveled."
  • What do you think of the meta elements of The Last Unicorn?  ("The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story," "Great heros need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed.  It is all part of the fairy tale.")
  • Is Schmendrick a real magician?
  • What makes magic?  ("The truth melts her magic, always, but she cannot keep from trying to make it server her."; "Speaking of livers," the unicorn said.  "Real magic can never be made by offering up someone eles's liver.  You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back."; "Offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them."
  • What do you make of the statement "Whatever can die is beautiful -- more beautiful than a unicorn, who lives forever, and who is the most beautiful creature in the world."?
  • On various occasions the differences between the immortal unicorn and mortal humans is mentioned.  The unicorn cannot sorrow or regret.  She has lived her life apart not only from humans but from her own kind.  How does immortality change her morality?
  • Several characters are attempting to achieve immortality through memory - Mommy Fortuna will never be forgotten by a unicorn, Captain Cully creating his own legend.  What is immortality?
  • How does identity effect reality?
There is much more beyond this short list, and so many fantastic lines in the book.  I highly recommend reading The Last Unicorn if you have not, and re-reading it if you haven't read it recently.


Friday, March 7, 2014

[Book Review] Under Nameless Stars

Under Nameless Stars / Christian Schoon (Powell's Books)
After barely surviving a plot to destroy her school and its menagerie of alien patients, could things get worse for novice exoveterinarian Zenn Scarlett? Yes, they could: her absent father has been kidnapped.

Desperate to find him, Zenn stows away aboard the Helen of Troy, a starliner powered by one of the immense, dimension-jumping beasts known as Indra. With her is Liam Tucker, a Martian boy who is either very fond of her, very dangerous to her, or both. On the verge of learning the truth about her missing dad, Zenn’s quest suddenly catapults her and Liam thousands of light years beyond known space, and into the dark heart of a monstrous conspiracy.
I've come to have high hopes for books published by Angry Robot.  Unfortunately, Under Nameless Stars came nowhere near what I've come to expect from this publisher.  I failed to notice when selecting this title that it was a sequel, an unfortunate slip on  my part, but not something that should ruin the enjoyment of the book.

I feel that Under Nameless Stars relies far too much on the previous novel.  Rather than having it's own plot building on the story told in the previous novel, it instead reads as the second half of a book ripped in half.  Characters are introduced as if we're well familiar with them when 100 pages in it's their first mention in any form.  Even the book teaser relies very heavily on the previous novel.

There are some hints of YA troupes (I just can't look at silver eyes the same anymore these days).  Perhaps the most unforgiving aspect is the reliance of deus ex machina.  Zenn Scarlett has a talent as an exoveterinarian, working with animals of alien and earth origin.  However largely she progresses through her adventures and escapades by things just working out rather than for any solid reason except it was needed for the plot.  Even the hinge point of the plot assumes an overwhelming amount of faith on a largely untested biological experiment.  By the time the villain is revealed the reader is likely unsurprised, all evidence points to him early on.  Then he behaves as a Bond villain, revealing his sinister purpose and methods, secure that the captured protagonist will never escape their merciless fate.

Schoon has come up with some fantastic ideas for aliens and non-humanoid life forms, and I love the expansion of dolphins into an accepted sentient race with the ability to communicate and co-occupy the same environment with humans and other species.  On the flip side the sheer number of named species is a bit overwhelming and hard to keep track of.  Few of the alien races are really involved enough in the story to stick out, and instead they begin to feel as filler to solidify Under Nameless Stars' as a science fiction novel.  The book does have some neat technology ideas, though a few of them I'm a bit dubious of, and one case some possibly dubious genetic tinkering.

I may have liked this book more had I not expected more of it.  If you have read the previous book and enjoyed it, I do recommend reading this, I'm sure it will pair well.  Unfortunately, I did not find this book satisfying.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Link Smorgasbord, February 2014

Adobe’s change of DRM could end old e-readers’ compatibility with e-book stores
Fortunately Adobe backpedaled a little bit on this one, but this is one of those underlying issues about DRM.  Now it makes sense that they wanted to rework their encryption, because to be honest, it was laughably easy to get around (if I have to buy a book with DRM one of the first things I do is remove it so that I can read it on the device of my choice and have a back-up copy).  Changes are still going to happen, but now the onus is on the publishers and ebook vendors if they are going to force a DRM that is incompatible with a large number of existing devices, and on the device manufacturers if they plan on providing any sort of firmware updates in response.

See more:
Adobe: We Didn’t Mean to Use DRM to Break Your eBook Readers

Noisetrade
Free books, audio books, and music.  Tip suggested but left to your discretion.

Four Libraries Offering Cutting-Edge Digital Services
Well, the title is pretty self-explanatory.

Placer County Libraries Join Zip Books Program
In other terms, this is a patron-drive acquisition program for libraries facilitated by Amazon.  Why Amazon?  I have no clue, I'd think it would make the most sense to use the library's primary vendors who still generally give better prices than Amazon does, and then go to online retailers for books not offered there, but that's just me.  Personally I like patron suggestions, but as someone who has experience with collection development, weeding collections in particular, I'm dubious of automatically making any patron purchase request under $35.  On the flip side, it may be a great way of curating title suggestions.

Making the Mobile Web Safer with HTTPS Everywhere
Specifically, HTTPS Everywhere is now available for mobile versions of Firefox.

Sony selects Kobo to bring its world class ebookstore to Sony Readers in the US and Canada
Sony Reader Store closing, using Kobo Store instead

Professor Candy Schwartz's Words of Wisdom
I had Professor Schwartz while working on my MLS, she's a brilliant and fantastic woman.

This Is What a Librarian Looks Like
Many of you have probably seen this, it was a very popular article shared around for a few weeks.  I like it, it shows a range of library faces beyond middle aged woman with glasses, cardigan, and hair in a bun.  Shockingly some people, including other librarians, were incredibly upset and offended by this (and others were just jerks).
See more:
Slate’s This is What a Librarian Looks Like: This is why we can’t have nice things
This Is What A Librarian Looks Like: Ur Doin’ It Wrong Culture Must Die

Lovecraft's Monsters enhances the mythos
My review was featured on the publisher's Tumblr!  :D

Invest in libraries; they are windows into digital literacy for adults (Commentary)
Looking at some of the importance of libraries for adults, not just the children.  This is something that most of my career as a librarian has involved, as strive to help adults with digital literacy.

Library Consortium Tests Interlibrary Loans of e-Books
Meanwhile, in academic library land, dealing with e-books, DRM, and Inter-Library Loan.

Why Apple's Recent Security Flaw Is So Scary
There are security flaws in any OS, but I personally find Apple OS security flaws scarier as their users often believe they don't ever need to worry about security at the same time that iOS popularity has skyrocketed with the success of their mobile devices.

Open Access Honesty
So I hadn't realized that Amazon charged the publisher whenever "free" books are sold.  I like his conclusion, "So here's my simple, unproven postulate: in the long run, full disclosure about pricing and an honest relationship with readers will be in the best, mutual interests of authors, publishers, readers, and libraries. And customers will prefer a distribution channel that enables that honesty."