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Dune

Dune

Dune is a difficult book to adequately assess in my opinion. There are so many different points in time that you could have read this book and properly and wildly different understandings and mental visualizations. For example you might have read Dune back when it was first released prior to any adaptation or you could have read it after having seen the 1984 adaptation. You could have also read it relatively recently, but before the 2021 adaptation. For me personally I read the first book after having watched the 2021 adaptation and then read Dune Messiah after the 2024 adaptation of part 2. That being said I tried my best to read it with a completely clean mental slate as to try and not visualize anything as it was depicted in the 2021 adaptation. It’s impossible to not be influenced at least some degree, but I think I have these two universes separated in my mind.

To me Dune is far closer to the genre of fantasy than even Star Wars which I believe to be equal parts fantasy and science fiction. It clearly takes place in a world with extremely advanced technology including interstellar space travel, but the story seems to intentionally not elaborate on any of it. Instead it focuses heavily on what is essentially magic and mysticism. It’s possible that later books elaborate on the science in more depth, but if they at all follow the style of the first two books then I have my doubts.

There are many things I do not like about Dune and very few things I do like about it. I am not a fan of the concept of blood lines being important or holding any kind of significance. This is an extremely prevalent plot point throughout these books and occasionally mentions eugenics in order to guide specific traits in offspring to create a kind of savior. Which brings me to the idea of a singular savior. This is typical of a hero’s journey type story although Dune mostly subverts this expectation by the end, but Paul is still clearly one the most significant individuals in the book and the story couldn’t possibly occur without him and his special genetics and plot armor. The worst part of this book for me is the way the characters all speak in riddles and double speak where if they simply told each other what they meant the outcome for everybody would have been in their favor. It adds contrivances for the sake of intentional misunderstandings to drive the plot forward for what I suspect is to make things sound more mystical. While the prose is very fanciful and poetic I wish it were more explicit at times instead of almost solely relying on imagination to fill in so much of the gaps.

The world building in Dune is one aspect that I find enjoyable. One of my favorite things in a book is its ability to put vivid scenes in my mind and Dune does this very well. It makes me wish that more of the story took place on worlds other than the complete desert planet of Arrakis, however there is decent amount of diversity of locations on Arrakis as well as other worlds such as the Atreides homeworld Caladan, the Harkkonen homeworld Geidi Prime and even the Guild ships.

I will finish reading the other 4 books at some point in the future out of curiosity of how the story continues. It doesn’t provide the same feeling of imagination and wonder that I enjoy from a more science fiction oriented book. I don’t know exactly what the difference between fantasy and science fiction are as it is more of a spectrum rather than any hard dividing line. I suspect that on average a science fiction book will attempt to explain the inner workings of things which I find the most enjoyable to think about.

Revelation Space

Revelation Space

One of my favorite themes in a science fiction space opera is the wildly imaginative solutions to the Fermi paradox. Another book that I found to have a similar feeling of a bleak and hopeless future is The Dark Forest, the sequel to Three Body Problem. Both ultimately deal with the Fermi paradox and why we as humans have never encountered any intelligent life outside of Earth. Revelation Space takes place long after humanity has left Earth and in a society where humans have achieved near immortality alongside all manner of body and mind modifications. In a way it feels more cyberpunk in that regard that anything else I have read. Another fascinatingly unique aspect is that the balance of power is heavily in favor of small groups of what are essentially technology pirates rather than any larger military or government. Entire worlds are essentially at the mercy of these individuals and their whims due to their vastly superior technology and firepower. The scale of the universe and its usage of relativistic speeds through space and its effects on time and the characters were brilliant. The only other book that I recall that used the concept of relativistic speeds was Project Hail Mary and we never actually get to see the impact that this has on time between people that have their frame of reference in time become vastly different. The scale of time and the scale of death and destruction are also difficult to fathom.

The book starts off slow and takes a long time to pick up pace and have the pieces of the galaxy spanning mystery fall into place. The main protagonist is an arrogant archeologist whom is attempting excavate a world that was discovered to have had sentient life that suddenly got wiped out more than nine hundred thousand years ago. I never got the impression that there was any characters that were morally just in their actions. Everyone seemed to be devious to downright evil at times, but that is part of what I found to be compelling. There doesn’t appear to be any inherently good course of action to take and ultimately there is no telling whether the events that occurred were for better or worse.

I am looking forward to reading Chasm City next which is a prequel or at least occurs chronologically prior to the events of Revelation Space so I can move on to Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. These books are very long and I found the narrator of the audiobook to be subpar so I am reading through them slowly.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire (2019) – Arkady Martine

I know this is a bit blasphemous in the world of books, but the cover and title of this one really stood out to me. The contents of the book did not entirely disappoint my vague expectations, but I think calling it a space opera is a bit of a stretch. It has a lot of the elements of a space opera yet lacks one of the more critical ingredients which happens to the space. From what I hear the sequel does a lot to remedy this problem. As a standalone book I think it suffers a bit from having a seemingly grand scope and scale without actually getting there. There are also themes of poetry that is brought up frequently which is implied to be a significant aspect of Teixcallan empires culture despite there being very little poetry explicitly written. This is a general problem I have throughout the book in which the characters mention a lot of places and culture without the story getting there to show you first hand. Perhaps the author thought the imagination of such things was more powerful than if it had been written directly. The places, people and culture that we do see are well described and fascinating. It is relatively easy to extrapolate from what we are shown in detail to what is briefly mentioned and imagine a more flushed out world. The book could have done this itself, but it is already quite long for how much happens.

The book starts off strong with one of our primary characters Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from a small independent space station, arriving to her newly appointed position on Teixcalaan. Her predecessor Yskander has died and likely murdered for reasons unknown and the circumstances and politics surrounding his death are numerous as they are mysterious. Lsel station where Mahit is from has a unique and peculiar technology called an imago machine that allows the recording and implanting of memories down through the generations. Mahit with her exceptional aptitudes in language and politics awarded her the honor of receiving the imago line of her predecessor despite it being many years out of date. Unfortunately the younger memory of Yskander that Mahit carries within her witnessing the dead body of his older self causes a malfunction in her imago machine. This leaves Mahit without the knowledge of her imago line an direct predecessors knowledge to help her navigate the politics of the Teixcalaan empire.

The murder mystery of Yskander is my favorite part of the plot which is the lure that kept my reading. It’s hard to stop reading something before you learn all of the details of a mystery if it is even moderately captivating. Besides the mystery the various descriptions of technology such as the imago machines and the city run by a perfect algorithm were enjoyable concepts. The city itself being described as a single entity is particularly interesting and I appreciate how the author never uses the terminology “AI” to describe it. This plot point didn’t feel as significant as I think it could have been, but it is possible it will be more important in the sequel. Despite not being completely enamored with A Memory Called Empire I am still looking forward to the possible conclusion in the sequel A Desolation Called Peace. Especially if becomes more space and not just opera.

Seveneves

Seveneves

Seveneves (2015) – Neal Stephenson

After describing my interest in the hard science fiction of Greg Egan to an acquaintance they recommend the author Neal Stephenson to me. They didn’t give me any particular book as a recommendation so I started looking up titles myself. To be honest I picked up Seveneves because the name “Izzy” caught my eye. This is apparently a completely fictional nickname for the International Space Station (I.S.S) that Neal created. It wouldn’t be much of a problem in text format, but as an audiobook I can’t imagine how tedious it would be to be saying “I.. S.. S..” or “International Space Station” 352 times. I queried the ebook and determined that the word “Izzy” appears exactly 352 times throughout the book. That is at least a third of the pages so rather frequent. While I would definitely categorize this book as hard science fiction I’d say it still revolves heavily around characters. Of which there are a great number of in this book. It was actually rather difficult to keep them all straight throughout this exceedingly long book. I believe there are nearly 900 pages total. Unfortunately in my opinion the story that was told did not warrant such a long book. To be fair I don’t think any of the book was unnecessary fluff. It is so long because of both the pacing and the great detail in which the world and events are described.

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

This is the very first sentence of the book. I have never seen the threat so quickly established. This immediately brings up a lot of questions. Such as, what is going to happen to Earth? What blew up the moon? What are they going to do about it? Will humanity survive? Only some of these very critical questions get answered which has left me somewhat dissatisfied. Of course once you finish the book you will know that some things were not the point the author was trying to make as the story takes a vastly different turn than expected by the end.

Around two thirds of the book takes place on Izzy. The main protagonist in the first two parts is Dinah who coincidentally is already onboard Izzy at the time the moon explodes. She is a bit of a quirky engineer who is working on developing various types of robots for purposes such as mining. Initially upon the moon exploding all of the large remaining pieces stay gravitationally bound to one another in roughly the same position as the moon had been prior. It is not until further analysis that it is discovered that the large pieces will slowly collide and an exponential rate until it turns into clouds of millions of smaller rocks that will eventually fall to earth. The hard rain will completely burn away the atmosphere and obliterate the surface of the Earth. This sets off a frenzy to create a plan to save humanity by any means necessary.

If this book was half as long or focused far more on the story in the third act I would have enjoyed it far greater. It felt like the third act was the story that the author really wanted to tell, but for some reason spend the majority of the book merely on the setup for it. It also ends so suddenly that it feels incomplete. That said I enjoyed this book more than I did not ironically due to the great detail in which events are described. You can really feel the horror, claustrophobia and futility the characters are going through when trapped in space with no planet to return to or ask for help. I will likely pick up another Neal Stephenson book in the near future. All of his books seem quite long, but Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon look interesting.

The Final Architecture

The Final Architecture

The Final Architecture (2021) – Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Final Architecture is a trilogy that consists of the books Shards of Earth (2021), Eyes of the Void (2022) and Lords of Uncreation (2023) by Adrian Tchaikovsky. These books were vastly different than the previous books I had read by the same author which was the Children of Time trilogy. I had read that the author had studied zoology which made a lot of sense in the context Children of Time trilogy. I was under the impression that all of his books would feature some kind of deep dive into the psychology, biology and culture of hypothetical forms of sentient life. The Final Architecture has plenty of this as well, but it is much closer to what I would consider a traditional space opera with political factions and space militaries at war. Some of the factions just happen to be aliens with biology not typically associated with intelligent life and with motives that are often incomprehensible.

The book starts off on a run down salvage ship called the Vulture God with a ragtag group of misfits that feels reminiscent of space westerns such as Firefly. Our main protagonist Idris is a seemingly unaging human. During the first war against the architects, which are a moon sized species that have the power to reshape entire planets, Idris underwent a procedure to allow him to become an intermediary. This is a highly experimental procedure with a very low chance of success. The goal being to reshape the persons mind to mimic that of the only human who was born naturally with the ability to perceive unspace and allow them to touch mind to mind with the architects. Merely informing the architects of their presence is often enough to convince them to turn away. Now many decades later at the start of the book Idris is working on the salvage ship in order to escape the atrocities of the past as well to prevent the current colonial human powers called the Liason Board from effectively enslaving him as an unspace pilot. The architects have not been seen in all of time and it is believed by many they are gone for good.

The plot takes off when our secondary protagonist Solace who is a part of a separate faction of all female genetically engineered humans called the Parthenon is sent to investigate one of the only known intermediaries not current under the control of the Liason Board. Solace being an old wartime friend of Idris is allowed to accompany the crew of the Vulture God on a salvage operation while she attempts to convince Idris to assist the Parthenon. During a would be routine salvage operation the crew makes a discovery that has far reaching ramifications.

What I like most about these books is surprisingly also what I dislike the most. The sense of mystery that is set up is both brilliant and debilitating. The frequency at which the main character mentions being incredibly close to figuring out the precise nature of unspace and the architects is so high that at times the book seems to break the fourth wall to poke fun at it. Which brings us to unspace which is both the most fascinating fictional science concept in the book as well as this increasingly vague undefinable concept that seems to only get more confusing as the book progresses. Other species such as the Essiel seem to have no problem understanding the very nature of unspace and the universe, but it would be far too convenient if they simply passed on this knowledge to humanity and other species. They also have a religious like belief that only they should be allowed to have this information. The variety of sentient alien life is extravagant. They don’t go into as much detail of their biology or psychology, but there is a lot about their various cultures. Including the culture of the Parthenon with it being a completely uniform biologically engineered all-female faction.

As a space opera enthusiast I highly enjoyed these books. The mysteries with their abstract nature are consistently interesting to think about. The action all the way from ship to ship battles to hand to hand combat were thrilling. However, no matter how much I enjoyed reading these books I don’t believe any more books set in this universe are necessary. It feels like a complete set where any more or any less would not be as solid of a series.

The Quantum Evolution

The Quantum Evolution

The Quantum Evolution (2018) – Derek Künsken

There are actually 3 main books in this series with a couple spin-offs. The first book in the series is called The Quantum Magician. I read all three of these one after another awhile ago so it would be hard to distinguish exactly how I feel about them individually. There are clear and distinct plots in each book and I do remember where the plot ends and starts again, but my thoughts and opinions are going to be influenced by one another. So instead I am going to write a single post about the series as a whole. I find that in order to fully enjoy this book I had to suspend my disbelief about a number of things. Especially in regards to one of the primary premises this book hinges on. That premise involves the ideas behind quantum wave functions and how it can effectively “collapse” when observed by consciousness. I am not an expert on the matter, but from the many hours of documentaries I have watched and articles I have read I am not convinced that quantum mechanics and conscious observers could work anything like is demonstrated in this book. I believe one of the main points of the famous Schrödinger’s cat experiment was precisely point out the absurdity of applying these quantum mechanics on a macroscopic scale. Regardless, I do not feel like this detracts from my enjoyment of the book. One of my favorite things about science fiction is when it goes off into the deep end in its fictional science. This just happens to stray close to a real scientific phenomenon and extrapolates it into something fictional.

The protagonist Belisarius is a genetically engineered human who is capable of perceiving the quantum world without collapsing its wave functions through observation. This is explained as being possible due to their engineered ability to turn off their sense of self. While in this fugue state of mind they have no understanding of who they are and can’t easily respond to stimuli. These quantum engineered humans are called the homo quantus. Belisarius has left the comfort and safety of his own people to explore what it is he is meant to be doing and partially as an act of self preservation due to the risky nature of the fugue state on the body. Due to his engineered superior intellect he has found a way to live as a con man. Soon after he catches the attention of leaders of an oppressed nation and is contracted to help them bring numerous war ships through one of the most defended wormholes in human civilization.

The universe of The Quantum Evolution series feels incredibly vivid and well imagined. All of the companions that Belisarius recruits for what is basically a heist are unique and lively. There are many other forms of engineered humans that exist for various reasons from the homo pupa who were engineered to serve their masters and the homo eridanus who were engineered merely to survive at the crushing depths of an ocean planet. One of my favorite characters is a homo eridanus that is recruited for the job. He could be described as an incredibly ugly bulbous fish monster of a human. They are under no disillusion of what they are and how they look. One of the ways they cope with this unfortunate fate is their constant expression of nihilism as well as vulgar language. Despite its excessive repetition I found it consistently amusing.

Sometimes people describe a convoluted, but masterful plan as playing a game of 4-D chess. This is usually a wild exaggeration of the complexity of whatever scheme they are trying to pull off. However, in The Quantum Magician I feel that this is the closest thing to what could be described as 4-D chess moves that aren’t deus ex machina tier nonsense that completely changes the rules of the game after the fact. I enjoyed the incredible resolution and climax of each book and really hope there is a fourth book as a sequel to The Quantum War. I get the impression that there is more to tell about The Quantum Evolution universe.

Diaspora

Diaspora

Diaspora (1997) – Greg Egan

This is now the second book that I have read by Greg Egan and I believe I will at some point work my way through the entire collection of books. I don’t think I could read two of these books in sequence as they are rather heavy. I don’t believe hard sci-fi begins to describe what you can expect from this book. I find myself to be reasonably knowledgeable of what is possible in regards to physics, mathematics, biology and computer science, but this frequently goes above and beyond that. I enjoy this aspect of the book, but it does present a couple of problems. I had trouble distinguishing at what point the book transitions from science of today, to science of the future to entirely science fiction. It is easy enough to know when real science is happening and then it gets more difficult when transitioning to theoretical science that could maybe be real, but humans of today simply lack the technology to make it feasible. The line between theoretically plausible science and science fiction is a bit more muddy. Regardless I had a great time thinking about and trying to comprehend exactly what it was the book was trying to have the reader imagine. There is everything from the real world of flesher humans, completely virtual worlds, 5-dimensional universes and the tunneling of the infinite multiverse.

The beginning starts off with the birth of a virtual human in a process called orphanogensis. It feels like a deep dive into the processes behind the conception of a virtual human and the precise mechanisms by which it transforms from merely a collection of algorithms and information into a true general artificial intelligence. This is the birth of our main protagonist Yatima and thus begins our journey from the perspective of a newborn orphan inside a virtual polis. Problems start to arise when it is discovered that a relatively nearby pair of neutron stars are going to inevitably collide and release enough gamma wave radiation to destroy all flesher life on Earth. This sets Yatima and Inoshiro off on a quest to make contact with the fleshers and warn them of their impending doom by uploading their minds into gleisner robots. By this point the flesher humans have already split off into so many factions that have such diverse biology that their modes of thought varies enough to make comprehending one another difficult.

When I started reading this I didn’t realize that the books title was an actual word. Upon looking up the definition it made a lot more sense and I believe it to be a great single word summary of the story.

Diaspora (/daɪˈæspərə/ dy-ASP-ər-ə) Any dispersion of an originally homogeneous entity, such as a language or culture.

The book seems to follow the concept of trans-humanism all the way to its inevitable conclusion which has humanity in some form or another spreading itself throughout the universe and through the multiverse. The lengths at which people will go to discover truths when they can virtually live until the end of the universe is limitless. You might just lose what made you yourself along the way and never be able to return.

Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary (2021) – Andy Weir

After being mostly disappointed by Artemis and The Martian I was quite wary of this one. Perhaps my expectations were more reasonable this time around, but I think it was also a better book. Considering how those other books were trying their hardest to stay within a reasonable level of scientific accuracy and plausibility I was completely surprised that there turned out to be an alien in this one. An intelligent sentient species no less. He also just kind of showed up out of nowhere and I was in disbelief that that was the direction the story was going for a bit.

I often found the book to be a bit too light hearted at times. Like it was intentionally written so that it could some day be a PG movie for all ages. There is nothing wrong with this, but it felt off at times as the emotions and tone did not match the current circumstance. I also found it a bit eye rolling at times that the level of competency this supposed average teacher showed in nearly any subject that was brought up. Rocky was clearly the best character in my opinion. If he wasn’t there to offset the lone savior trope like in The Martian and Artemis I don’t think I would have enjoyed this book.

The science bits were a bit too sciencey and not enough fictiony for my tastes, but I don’t think it is Weir’s style to try and make up his own fictional science. Almost all of the science was just real science and math. I think the only thing that was pretty much entirely made up was the idea that something like Astrophage the its neutrino harvesting amoeba could exist. I did like the mostly simple mathematics and science details given for everything Ryland and Rocky were doing.

I’m on the fence about whether I’d read another one Andy Weir’s books as the writing style feels a bit bland to me, but I’m sure I’ll watch the inevitable movie adaptation. I’m really curious to see how they manage to portray Rocky and his and Ryland’s attempt at communication. Jazz Hands ♫ ♪ ♪ ♬

Artemis

Artemis

Artemis (2017) – Andy Weir

This was the wrong place to start reading books by Andy Weir. I had already watched The Martian movie and decided it made sense to start somewhere else and possibly go back to read The Martian book another time. I now believe that was a mistake as I did not enjoy this book very much. It seems to be a thing this author does, but the protagonist is unrealistically intelligent and clever. I suspect it will be a trend that they also single-handedly save the day despite all odds against them. This is not even the main problem I had with this book.

The main character Jazz is really annoying due to her unwarranted teenage angst. I also found some of the things she said to be too sexual for the context of the rest of the story. It felt out of place and didn’t add to plot. Similar to what I saw in the movie of The Martian there are a lot of details about the math and science and why it might technically make sense. There is also a bit of global economics in there which was intriguing. However, the science is all too much science and not enough fiction. What keeps me going in a science fiction is the fictional science and not actual science. It’s great when things are based on real science in order for it to not turn into a fantasy, but doing actual science does not feel as creative. Similar to The Martian the story is far too grounded in reality without enough fiction.

Despite not liking the story or any of the characters I didn’t hate this book. There was enough there to help me imagine life on the moon in some hypothetically plausible scenario. One of the main things I remember at the end of reading a book is the visualization of the environment. I can walk around this environment in my head from Jazz’s tiny bunk to the slightly more open park looking up at the domes and the tram going between the domes. I do plan on reading Project Hail Mary so I am going to give Andy Weir another go in a hopefully more fictional scenario without an angsty protagonist.

End of Eternity

End of Eternity

End of Eternity (1955) – Isaac Asimov

This is the first book I’ve read by Isaac Asimov. I decided it was a good idea to go back to some of the classics and this seemed like a great place to start. It might have made more sense to start with The Foundation Trilogy, but I vaguely remember reading somewhere that End of Eternity was potentially a prequel of sorts to it. I’m also in the middle of the Foundation TV adaptation that is very loosely based on the book. I didn’t want to get those two stories mixed up in my head so I’ll likely wait for it to end before beginning the books.

The premise of this book is that humanity has built an organization called Eternity. There is a facility that exists outside of the regular flow of time with machines that allow them to travel as far forward in time as they like. However, they can only travel as far backwards as the establishment of the field that maintains the Eternity facility. The organization reminds me of an early 20th century university that primarily consists of wealthy privileged men. Which happens to be a rule at Eternity. There are no woman allowed at Eternity. Perhaps this premise was more readily accepted at the time this book was written, but feels a bit dated now. Especially considering the primarily conflict of this story ends up revolving around our protagonist Andrew Harlan falling in love with a woman which happens to be strictly forbidden. Despite being an incredibly talented technician of Eternity who skillfully implements reality changes in order to maintain some kind of stability he feels incredibly naive and childish. I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. Their motivations seemed a tad ridiculous most of the time and they consistently refused to consider the implications of their actions in order to drive the story further into disarray. Ultimately the science fiction part of the story was well conceived and exciting to think about. Every story that involves time travel has its own way of implementing its rules, but this one involved what I know as the Butterfly Effect. I think this book might predate the story that coined that term, but I don’t think End of Eternity defined this concept either. Effectively the plot of the story sets in motion a predetermined loop of time that can’t be undone no matter what any of the characters do. Even the characters knowing this might be the case appears to have no effect on their predetermined destiny.

I think it is important to keep in mind when a book was written to try and get in the right frame of reference that the author intended. The book might be a bit dated, but if you read it from the perspective of being in 1955 it makes a lot more sense. I look forward to reading The Foundation Trilogy so I can see if these books are at all related to one another.