The first thing which catches you when you approach this book is not the title, but its tagline: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. And whilst this sounds lurid and OTT I can assure you this book is non-fiction, and that this must all be true (and yes, of course it is!). Andrew Kessler, the author of this unusual tome, is a writer with a degree in mathematics, is an entrepreneur (his book-event start-up ran into legal issues with its founders) who won - as a non-space-geek! - the space geek lottery and was invited to join and follow the Phoenix Lander Science Mission from within the Science Operations Center. I mean, spending 90 days exploring the Martian Arctic? I know a number of people who would have given their right arm to do so… Martian Summer is the the record of said summer spent on Mars (remote operations only), providing an outsiders view of the workings of such a mission, the scientists and engineers involved, and the discoveries they made before the Martian Winter set in.
Phoenix was launched in August 2007, landed on Mars in May 2008, and sent its last message on November 10 of that year (it reported “Triumph” as the engineers put it into sleep mode for the Martian Winter - which it did not survive). Its name was very much program - it was built, on the double quick, from the canceled Mars Surveyor Lander, using instruments from both that and the (unsuccessful) Mars Polar Lander mission, amongst others. It was the first such mission led by a University and thus outside NASA (although they paid for a lot of it, and kept rather a lot of control, too - more on that below!). The main investigator for the Science phase was Peter Smith from the University of Arizona, Tucson, who hired Andrew to document the mission and relate it, in layman's terms, to the outside world. Andrew calls him, at least initially, a Martian Photographer, because Peter built the cameras for the Pathfinder mission (and for Phoenix, of course), and is the man who contrived to upload the Pathfinder pictures onto the Internet. This was in pre-Google times, but went what we would call ‘viral’ now - there were more than 100 million hits on the NASA server from people who wanted to see, to know, to be part of this - obviously totally overloading and crashing the server. It had a huge impact - all of a sudden NASA was riding on a wave of support, for the first time in a long while. And now he found a new way of spreading the word of what the scientists and engineers are doing behind their closed doors to the world.
For reasons mainly to do with my brain, and what's current in it, I'd like to point you to Peter Watts' story Malak. Malak is a drone. More so, it's an autonomous drone, and is being trained (there seem to be software upgrades, and neural networks, and general tinkering in play) to make its own 'moral' decisions. All in the name of removing slow, fallible, guilt-stricken, hesitating humans out of the equation. Because it's so much easier to have machines make our dirty decision for us, never mind do the dirty work...
The drone here is called Azrael (after the angel of death...), and we experience the story through its 'eyes'.
I'm not gonna spoil your enjoyment of the story by giving away more. If you know Peter Watts then you know that what he shows is realistic, rarely very edifying (especially when humans are involved) and mirrors the complexities of the real world.
The picture on the right is of a drone called Azrael (I don't know if that's inspired by this story, or a parallel development), built in Lego, and posted on Flicker by a user called [MIXBRIX]. Recommended soundtrack to reading this: Drones, by Muse. Obviously.
I am behind in my Stross reading. Really behind. Here I am, writing up my thoughts on The Fuller Memorandum, a Laundry Files book from 2010 – a series in which there are two further books available (one of which is sitting next to me, looking at me accusingly) and a further one (The Annihilation Score) announced for this summer. And this is only one series... You see, that kind of behind. Sorry.
And, in the long time I have abstained, I had nearly forgotten how much fun these books can be. Yes, content, structure, geekiness, story-telling drive and humoristic content vary in their mix from book to book, but this is still ways more fun for someone with a technical background, who works immersed in a bureaucratic environment where kicking a dead whale down the beach provides more progress than dealing with HR, and who has a sense of humour based on wordplay and terrible puns. But that's just me; Charlie is worse...
Anyway, the Fuller Memorandum. I'm not sure how much needs to be said about the Author, Charles Stross (adopted Scot. Umpteen books to his name. Award-winning, including Hugo, Sideways, Prometheus etc. All-round entertaining presence when on stage or in full swing in the bar), or the Laundry as the topic of the series (UK secret agency, started after WWII, dealing with occult dealings, incursions, and the end of the world as it approaches inexorably). This book, as all others so far, follows our protagonist Bob Howard (not his real name) as he yet again gets into trouble with HR, with the Auditors, and with a rather sinister organisation of cultists, who are a front for something much worse, who also are a front. But I shouldn't spoil your fun here, let's just say they are the kind of people who can give a hardened occult agent well versed in demonology nightmares.
I've just been reading a number of (differing...) definitions of Magic Realism and Urban Fantasy, and still cannot decide which of those Charlie Human's books fall into. Heck, it could even be YA... So, sidestepping the genre question, Kill Baxter is the follow-up to Charlie's debut novel, Apocalypse Now Now. And it's rather fabulous, I think.
Charlie Human is a South African writer, published by Century and Random House, with two novels and a few published pieces of short fiction so far. Kill Baxter is set in the same universe as Apocalypse Now Now, and picks up more or less directly where the previous book ended. Baxter Zevenko has just saved the world, and, to get out of the trouble this got him into, had to agree to leave his Cape Town school where he was the Porn kingpin, and join Hexpoort school. Hexpoort is run by a secret government agency, and is teaching talented youngster on how to develop their magic abilities (Baxter is mainly a Dreamwalker, which is an unusual and near-extinct skill) and survive in this world where all kinds of creatures, referred to as The Hidden, er, hide amongst humanity. Not all of them have a very positive attitude to humans, and that's before you get into global and inter-species politics. Baxter is not happy in Hexpoort – he sucks at magic as something is blocking his abilities, making him absolutely bloody useless at it. He gets bullied by another pupil who apparently is prophesised to be The Chosen One (whatever or whoever that is), who is unhappy with Baxters fame for his deeds. His girlfriend, who he saved in the previous book has dumped him, and his best friend is not speaking to him anymore. Sucks to be him... and now his school is under attack by an unknown enemy referred to as the Muti Man (he collects the teeth of MK6 agents he kills for magic purposes), and instead of getting an education Baxter gets appreticed to Jackson 'Jackie' Ronin, an ex-soldier with both an psychological and a related alcohol problem. But that's the least of their problems...
To launch this they have posted a little taster, called St. Dymphna’s School For Poison Girls. It is, to some extent, a school and schoolgirl story, albeit with a twist. St Dymphna's is a finishing school - for girls who plan to kill their future husband, and potentially more of his family, in the name of revenge, of family honour, or any other societal reason.
But, as you might have guessed, there's more to the school than simply preparing girls to kill proficiently!
The story in illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Kathleen Jennings - the picture to the right is an example.
It's an entertaining read, and a good recommendation for the book, methinks!
I generally hold it with the wisdom of Public Enemy: Don't Believe The Hype. So, when something (in this case a book) comes along which is the bestestest thing ever, the greatest invention since the Triangular Wheel (Once bump less per rotation!), and something I absolutely urgently totally Must Read Now – I politely decline. Because it's a turn-off, because it's all too frequently not true, because I've been disappointed a few too many times, and because tomorrow there will be a different latest greatest hottest never to be surpassed thing anyway. So, when Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice burst on the scene, winning heaps or praise and about every award going (and, from the noise you'd think also some yet to be invented), I watched all the frothing going on, and read something else. Still, the book was presented to me, with quieter, more insistent recommendations, so I relented and read it. Here is what I found.
Ancillary Justice is the first book in a 'loosely connected' trilogy known as Imperial Radch. The 2nd book in the series, Ancillary Sword, came out in in 2014, is on this year's Hugo shortlist (and likely to win, due to Puppygate); and the final instalment (Ancillary Mercy) is scheduled for release in 2015. Ancillary Justice has won the BSFA, Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards (I think there's more, but that's the main ones anyway). The titles in themselves make interesting and subtle points – within the Radch Imperium (a rather large portion of space, centrally controlled) the names Justice, Sword, and Mercy refer to military space ships – a Justice is a troop carrier, the other two are smaller battle ships. An Ancillary, though, is a member of the crew of a Justice, a soldier, normally taken prisoner during an Annexation (ie the Radch gobbling up another planet or solar system), who in most cases is put in storage for a few hundred years, and who, when resurrected and ambulatory, has none of his previous memories or personality anymore, but is controlled by the ship mind of the Justice, who functions as some kind of hive mind, with many pairs of eyes, hands, voices.