Sunday, January 24, 2010

Leviathan

I first came to know Scott Westerfeld as I was reading through the list of stories on the Hugo Awards short list...or maybe it was the long list...It was pretty long...anyway, the list of stories that had received votes, but didn't make the final ballot. He had written a story called Ass-hat Magic Spider. I took one look at the title and said, "That's a story for me!" I rushed out and read it right away. It was a great story, and someday, if we ever get some money to pay people with for the podcast, I will make this story one of the first we buy.

So, when I saw a Scott Westerfeld book on my library's shelves, I checked it out right away.

Leviathan is a YA Steampunk novel. It's not just your average, run of the mill Steampunk, however (if there is such a thing for such a new sub-genre). In the world of Leviathan, the powers of Europe have gone in two very distinct technological directions. There's the Clankers, so named because their technology involves metal, steam power, engines, and the like. The nations German speaking nations of Europe seem to be the ones that have invested heavily in this traditional Steampunk technology (if there is such a thing for such a new sub-genre). Then there's the Darwinists. The Darwinists use some form of genetic engineering to create creatures to do the work that machines would do. The Darwinists are what we called the Allies, Britain, France, and Russia (although, Britain is really the only one we discuss in this book, so I'm not sure if France and Russia do the Darwinist thing).

The titular character...I guess you can't really call it a character, but sometimes it seemed to be close...the Leviathan, is the British airship that is made from the combination of a lot of different DNA, a whale being the most obvious. Somehow, these Darwinists have created creatures that, as part of their digestion, fart hydrogen into a giant gas bag. It uses this hydrogen filled bladder, to float through the air, and then the British military outfits it like a Zeppelin.

This part was the most interesting to me. It really got my mind reeling, imagining the possibilities. It makes me want to write a story myself that incorporates these Darwinist creatures.

To the story. It begins as Europe stands on the brink of World War I. We have two main characters in the book, Alek and Deryn. Alek is the son of the Archduke Ferdinand. If you rememeber your history classes from high school, you know that things don't go well for Archduke Ferdinand. At the start of the book, Ferdinand is assassinated, and Alek, with the help of some loyal servants, flees into the night to avoid a similar fate. Deryn is a Scottish girl whose father used to experiment with ballooning. Her father met a tragic accident, and Deryn has missed him greatly. Now, although girls are not allowed, Deryn has decided to join up with the British Air Service. She pretends to be a boy, and manages, with the help of the knowledge that her father bestowed on her, to get accepted into the service.

The two, of course, are on a collision course, although it's hard to see where it will come from, but eventually they meet up. Then the sparks fly. Alek tries to keep the fact that he is the son of the Archduke a secret, and Deryn does the same with the fact that she is a girl.

The book is very interesting, but I have to admit that it didn't hook me completely. It is the first in a trilogy, so nothing was resolved at the end. We'll have to see where it is going as the rest of the volumes come out in the future. I am interested, but I had hoped to be a lot more hooked. Maybe it's because it's set so far in the past in an era that I know relatively little about. Perhaps if it was WW2 rather than WW1 I would have been able to get more immersed in it. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad book at all. It was mindbogglingly cool to read about some of the things Westerfeld invented for this world. But the characters just didn't pull me in completely. I do plan on reading the later books though, so we'll see how that goes.

Up next for me? I came across an Orson Scott Card book that I hadn't read. I have been a pretty big fan of the guy ever since I read Ender's Game for the first time in high school. So my next book is Magic Street. I know nothing about it, so all I can say is I hope it's good.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Overclocked: Stories Of The Future Present

I decided to give Cory Doctorow's volume of short stories called Overclocked: Stories Of The Future Present a chance next. I went through and downloaded the audio versions that I could find of all the stories in this collection. Cory Doctorow is one of those author's that has a conduit into my brain. It almost seems like when he goes to write something, he rubs his lamp, out pops a genie, and he says, "Give me an idea that would really interest Big Anklevich." Then he's off to make something that really appeals to me. I mentioned when I talked about Little Brother just how addicting that novel was. Most anything he's done is the same way for me. Sure there's the few odd ones I don't like--I wasn't a fan of True Names, the story he did with Benjamin Rosenbaum, so I guess he doesn't really ask a genie what I'd like--but they're hard to come by.

Printcrime: This one was done as a flash story on Escape Pod a few years back. I heard it then, and of course am now hearing it again. It's not my favorite Doctorow, it's not bad; I enjoyed it, but it's too short to get too invested in.

Doctorow always hammers on the idea of the government or corporations or the like trying to control what you do, and this is another story in that vein. It centers on the idea of 3D printers being illegal, because people could use them to print things like Gucci handbags and Prada shoes or something. So governments won't allow people to use them. Well, it wouldn't be a story if the hero went along with that now would it?

Before this story, I'd never even heard of 3D printers. This one and Boyfriend by Madeline Ashby (which was on Escape Pod back in September) led me to investigate this whole concept. It wasn't easy to find out what they exactly were. You search printers online and you don't get 3D printers right off, that's for sure.

When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth: I first heard this one on a Podiobooks anthology of stories called Voices: New Media Fiction. This collection brought together stories by authors who were podcasting their own stories. Doctorow started doing his own podcast way back in 2005 or 2006, so he was a pioneer of sorts. I came to the story podcast fold by listening to Escape Pod, which is a very well produced show. Very seldom does a reader screw up on a sentence, and then forget to get that edited out. Doctorow does his podcast in a completely different way. While it's recorded, it's done as if it were live. If he screws up, he goes back and rereads it, but there is no editing involved. After all, editing is very time consuming. I suppose treating it this way is wise for a very busy author like him, but it took me a while to come to terms with it. I was usually pretty irritated, after all I work in the field, and to me it was just monstrously unprofessional. Which makes sense, of course because he is not a professional like I am. I've learned how to forgive and accept it for what it is, after all, I did get it for free, I can't really expect it to sound like things I pay money for.

Anyway, enough about Doctorow's podcast. Let's talk about the story. When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth is about a sysadmin who survives a world ending holocaust by hiding out in his server room with other sysadmins. All the climate control and particulate filtering has made his workplace into the perfect place to ride out a bioagent attack. With the world ended, the sysadmins hiding out in similar places like the one our main character is hiding in decide to elect a prime minister of cyberspace, and write up a constitution that will help the world avoid ever arriving at a juncture like this one in the future.

It doesn't sound all that interesting from my description of it, but believe me it's a really cool story. You'd enjoy reading it or listening to it.

Anda's Game: This is another one that I heard on the Podiobooks collection. It's read by a famous gamer of some sort or other. Not being a gamer, her name means nothing to me, but she does a great job with the story, and that does matter.

Just the other day, we ran the story, Playable Character by Eric Juneau. Anda's Game is very similar to that story to Playable Character in that it's set in a World Of Warcraft style video game, only Anda's Game is much more socially conscious. In a near future, a British school girl learns to see the importance of doing good to others, instead of always satisfying her own selfish urges. It helps her improve her life in more ways than one. Really good story. Very fun and interesting.

I, Robot: This story, Doctorow said, tries to address a flaw in Isaac Asimov's robot mythology. For some reason, there never were competing companies that created robots. It was always U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. In this story, there's competing entities. There's also giant conglomerate countries with names drawn from Orwell's 1984. And of course there's government agencies run amuck, stealing liberties away from its citizens. In this story, a cop learns just exactly what his country is up to. Again, I enjoyed this story a lot. It's very similar to Little Brother in many ways, so it was guaranteed to be interesting to me.

I, Row-Boat:
Is a story about a sentient rowboat. It's set in a very far future, where human beings are no longer anchored to their bodies, but can upload their consciousnesses to wherever they want. Our rowboat hero, Robbie, takes people who have downloaded into bodies provided for them to experience what it was like to be a human scuba diving. Robbie develops romantic feelings for a human that has come diving. And then, some benevolent human consciousness decides to uplift the coral reef that Robbie's divers are exploring. The coral reef is confrontational and angry, and it attacks Robbie's divers. What will Robbie do?

It's a good story. Similar in ways the the aforementioned True Names that Doctorow wrote with Benjamin Rosenbaum. It's a little more accessible, though, I think.

After The Siege: Last story in the bunch. This one was really interesting. It's based on the siege of Leningrad, from World War II. It's set in the future, however, and involves 3D printers again. The people in the city where the story takes place are forced to live through some serious degradations and shortages. It really brings home what war can be like, and how it's always the hardest on those least responsible for it, the weakest and meekest always pay the biggest price.

So, overall, I think this is a great book, and I would recommend you pick it up and check it out. I love short stories (maybe that's why I produce a short story podcast), and these are some top quality short stories.

Up next, I'm taking another detour from my list of classic sci-fi literature, to read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan. It's that dreaded sub-genre of Steampunk. Can't wait to see what's in store for me.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2.9

A couple of days ago, Rish and I got together to do our normal podcasting. My computer froze on us halfway through our discussion, losing everything we'd recorded up to that point. I got irritated and depressed and insisted that we were done for the night, so we went out to the living room to watch a movie. Halfway through the director's cut of Watchmen, there was a strange shaking. My whole house sort of vibrated for a short moment. It was no longer than ten seconds, but it sure was weird. First thing that came to mind was that another meteor had come overhead, like the one from a month or so ago, but this time it hit down nearby.

I turned to Rish after it finished. "What the hell was that?"

"I don't know," he said, "Maybe an earthquake?"

We went outside and looked around to see if there was anything else that might have been the cause of the shaking, but it was dead quiet.

The next day I found out that it was an earthquake. 2.9 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter just about four miles from my house.It's interesting, because I grew up in California. I spent more than twenty years there. I was there when the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated San Francisco, just a few hours east of me, but that night with Rish was the first time I ever felt an earthquake.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Me! No, Me!


So, I finally got out to see The Princess and the Frog yesterday. It's the first Disney princess film with a black heroine. My daughters, of course, loved it. We're not black, but that didn't matter to them. They just identified with the heroine, whatever she may look like.

The main character, Tiana, at the start of the film, is a poor waitress who is only a childhood friend to a rich princess-like white girl. Tiana has big dreams, but hasn't achieved any of them yet. Of course things change eventually, but she's not the princess to begin with.

It really cracked me up on the way home from the theater as my two girls fought with each other in the back seat. They were playing princess with each other, and they were arguing about who got to be the princess...but in a different way than you might think.

"I get to be the waitress!" One shouted.

"No, you don't I get to be the waitress. You have to be the princess!"