Today’s Art (4th April 2019)

Well, since I had slightly more time, I thought that I’d take a very short break from making photo-based paintings and make the kind of digitally-edited cyberpunk painting that I used to make all of the time 1-2 years ago 🙂

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Cyberpunk Nostalgia” By C. A. Brown

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Review: “Autonomous” By Annalee Newitz (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from all of the fantasy fiction I’ve been reading recently and read some science fiction instead 🙂

I first heard about Annalee Newitz’s 2017 cyberpunk/biopunk novel “Autonomous” after seeing this online review that likened it to “Blade Runner”. Naturally, I was intrigued.

When I looked the book up online, I found that it had been praised by none other than Neal Stephenson and William Gibson (two of my favourite cyberpunk authors). After reading the online preview chapters, I realised that this was my kind of novel. So, after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I decided to splurge on a new paperback copy of it. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Autonomous”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Autonomous” that I read.

Set in Canada in 2144, pharmaceutical pirate Judith “Jack” Chen is making a smuggling run in her submarine when she happens to spot a news story about a student who has become chemically addicted to homework.

It doesn’t take Jack long to realise that this must be a dangerous undocumented side-effect of the Zaxy Corporation’s unreleased productivity drug Zacuity – a drug that she recently reverse-engineered and replicated for quick cash. But, before Jack’s can think about this too much, her sub’s defence systems alert her to the presence of intruders. Stowaways are trying to steal her drugs!

Meanwhile, International Property Coalition military combat bot Paladin is going through the final stage of training at a desert base. However, soon after the training mission, Paladin is paired with an IPC agent called Eliasz and ordered to track down Jack….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is really brilliant. Imagine the style and atmosphere of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“, mixed with the philosophy of movies like “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell”, mixed with the liberal open-mindedness of “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey“, mixed with a bit of the intelligent grittiness of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” and you might get a vague idea of what this novel is like 🙂 Like all great sci-fi novels, this one is also at least 5-10 years ahead of what Hollywood is doing in the sci-fi genre too.

Where do I even start? I suppose that I should talk about the sci-fi elements of this story first. Needless to say, these are all really well-handled. In addition to things like nanotechnology, body-modding, biodegradable phones, stealth kayaks, a programming language called “Adder” (Python, surely) and all sorts of other fascinating background details, all of the technology here seems like an extrapolation from current technology. And, given that the author has worked as an editor for several tech websites, all of this stuff has a real feeling of authenticity to it too.

Seriously, it’s really awesome to see a truly modern cyberpunk novel – which manages to create the same sense of fascination about modern technologies (eg: 3D printing, AI, “smart” drugs etc..) that the cyberpunk writers of the 1980s/1990s created about the internet.

Plus, this novel also tackles all sorts of modern tech topics too (eg: open source software, online privacy, security concerns about the “internet of things”, sex robots etc…). So, yes, this is very much a science fiction novel – in addition to being a rather gripping story too.

The setting and atmosphere of this novel is really interesting too. Whilst it mostly eschews rainy, neon-lit mega cities in favour of more realistic futuristic versions of Canada, Casablanca etc.. it is still very much a cyberpunk novel. In addition to the story’s dystopian world (which includes things like slavery, powerful pharmaceutical corporations etc..), this novel also has the “high tech and low lives” moral ambiguity which is central to the cyberpunk genre. And, given the focus on things like medical chemistry, body modding, cyborgs etc.. it’s also a biopunk novel too 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is really brilliant. This novel’s third-person narration is informal and fast-paced enough to be compelling, amusing, dramatic and intriguing – whilst also being complex enough to give the story a real sense of depth. Like in any good cyberpunk novel, the narration also contains futuristic and scientific jargon that really helps to immerse the reader (whilst also being written in a way where the reader can usually easily understand it from the context).

This brings me on to the characters. Whilst all of the characters can feel very slightly “larger than life” in a really interesting way, they still feel like realistic people who live complicated lives within a complicated world. The story also devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation and flashbacks too – whilst this can slow the story down a bit at times, it really helps to add some depth to the story.

Jack is a former student radical, turned drug pirate, who is trying to sort out the mess she made by selling a defective drug (whilst also trying to take down the corporation who designed the drug). She reluctantly teams up with a liberated slave called Threezed, who is at least somewhat traumatised by his past. In addition to this, she also meets some of her former student friends – some of whom have gone into legal open-source pharmacology instead (which allows the story to explore the merits of open source stuff vs. piracy).

On the other side, Eliasz and Paladin are the kind of brutal, morally-ambiguous “evil detectives” who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a film like “Blade Runner”.

Yet, they are humanised quite a bit in this story – with Eliasz falling in love with Paladin (and trying to reconcile this with the conservative culture inflicted on him when he was younger), and Paladin gradually trying to learn more about both who they are and how humanity works. Seriously, Eliasz is one of the best “I shouldn’t feel sympathy for this character, but somehow I do” characters I’ve seen since Deckard in “Blade Runner”.

In addition to this, the story is also filled with a rather interesting background cast too. The most interesting members of the background cast are probably the autonomous robots, who are basically free robots with human rights etc.. And the robot district of Vancouver, designed by robots for robots is one of the most fascinating settings in the story 🙂

Thematically, this novel is as intelligently complex as you would expect 🙂 In addition to tackling topics like slavery, free will, humanity, unjust laws and capitalism, the story also focuses on topics like open-source technology (as an alternative to piracy) too.

“Autonomous” also includes some really interesting LGBT themes too 🙂 One fascinating element in this story is how both the protagonist (Jack) and the antagonist (Eliasz) are bi – but, whilst Jack is completely at ease with this part of herself, Eliasz is racked with anxieties, repression and old prejudices about his feelings for Paladin.

In addition to being a subtle commentary about how modern culture views male and female bisexuality differently, it also shows the psychological damage that growing up in ultra-conservative surroundings (a religious part of Poland in Eliasz’s case) can sometimes cause. This element of the story also helps to emphasise the contrast between the free, open and bohemian world of the pharma pirates and the authoritarian, repressive, regimented world of the IPC.

Plus, the subject of Paladin’s gender is handled in a really interesting way too. For starters, Paladin doesn’t even think about this topic until Eliasz mentions it. Paladin is a robot with a male-looking exterior who later discovers that their organic brain (which is only used as a graphics/facial recognition processor, and doesn’t hold memories) came from a female donor.

Eliasz is eager to see Paladin as female once he learns this (in order to quell his own anxieties), and Paladin goes along with this (even after the organic brain is later destroyed in combat) even though Paladin doesn’t really seem to feel innately male or female. This external imposition of gender links into the novel’s themes of free will, authoritarianism etc.. whilst also emphasising that gender resides in a being’s mind/consciousness rather than the physical body/physical brain.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. “Autonomous” is a lean and efficient 291 pages in length, which is a wonderful rarity in both modern novels and cyberpunk novels 🙂 Seriously, it’s always cool to see a modern novel that isn’t a gigantic tome 🙂 In terms of pacing, this novel is reasonably good too. Although the character-based flashback scenes do slow the novel down a bit occasionally, it is mostly a rather fast-paced and compelling thriller story.

All in all, this novel is absolutely awesome 🙂 It’s a compelling, intelligent, atmospheric modern cyberpunk novel 🙂 2017 was a bit of a renaissance for the cyberpunk genre (eg: “Blade Runner 2049”, the US remake of “Ghost In The Shell” etc..) but “Autonomous” is one of the very few things from that year I’ve found that genuinely feels like a truly modern continuation of this awesome genre.

So, if you want to see what Hollywood sci-fi movies will probably look like in a decade’s time, then this novel is well worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Working For The Devil” By Lilith Saintcrow (Novel)

A few weeks before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive when I spotted a copy of Lilith Saintcrow’s 2005 novel “Working For The Devil” on one of my bookshelves. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s (probably when I was reading Mike Carey’s awesome “Felix Castor” novels, at a guess), but never quite got round to reading it back then.

So, after glancing at the first few pages and thinking “Yes, this is my kind of novel!”, I ended up ordering a second-hand anthology of all five novels in the series (it’s a giant tome of a book, so it seemed more ergonomic to read the individual paperback of this novel). I then…. got distracted by other books for several weeks, until this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Working For The Devil”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Orbit (UK) paperback reprint of “Working With The Devil” that I read.

The novel begins in the fictional US city of Saint City, at some point in the distant future. A necromancer (and part-time bounty hunter) called Dante Valentine is having a quiet afternoon at home when there is a knock on the door. When she opens it, a mysterious demon points a gun at her and tells her that his boss – Lucifer- wants to hire her for an urgent job. Needless to say, it looks like Dante will be… working with the devil!

More specifically, Lucifer wants Dante to track down and kill an escaped demon who has stolen something from him. Although Dante is initially wary about this, she soon learns that the demon in question is none other than the man who murdered her best friend several years earlier. So, in true action movie fashion, this time it’s personal!

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that is it awesome 🙂 Not only is it a totally badass horror/urban fantasy action-thriller novel (in the tradition of writers like Mike Carey, Jocelynn Drake and Laurell K. Hamilton), but it is also set in a cyberpunk-influenced future that reminded me a bit of things like “Blade Runner“, “Cowboy Bebop“, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” and Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash“. In other words, it is a really cool novel 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the horror/urban fantasy elements of this story. Although this story isn’t really particularly scary, there’s lots of horror-themed stuff here, like necromancy, hell, demons, serial killers, evil schools etc… Plus, although there’s relatively little of the gory horror that you’d expect in a novel like this, this story still works reasonably well as a horror-themed thriller.

Likewise, the story certainly has it’s own mythos and set of rules (eg: regarding magical power, necromancy etc..) which really help to add some depth and atmosphere to the story. The story’s fantasy elements also blend in really well with the sci-fi elements of the story too – with Dante’s astral voyages into the realm of the dead, manipulation of magical power etc.. almost reading like futuristic cyberpunk computer hacking at times. Likewise, the way that society reacts to the presence of psychics, necromancers etc… allows for some chillingly dystopian background elements too.

The novel’s action-thriller elements work really well too. Although there is a fair amount of time devoted to things like investigations and characterisation/dialogue, the story remains fairly gripping throughout and there are certainly a few dramatic fight scenes too (Dante carries a katana with her everywhere. So, this is kind of a given) – although not quite as many as you might expect. Still, this is the kind of compelling novel that you’ll want to binge-read in a couple of 2-3 hour sessions 🙂

The story’s sci-fi elements are really cool too 🙂 Although this novel initially just seems like an “ordinary” urban fantasy novel with a few futuristic words (eg: “holovid”, “plasgun” etc..) dropped into it for flavour, the “world” and atmosphere of the story is gloriously cyberpunk 🙂

Whether it’s the neon-lit “Blade Runner”-like Saint City, the scenes with flying skateboards (which reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”), the scenes set in a futuristic version of Rio Di Janeiro (which reminded me of a low-budget 1990s cyberpunk movie called “Nemesis) or the vaguely “Shadowrun: Dragonfall”-esque blending of fantasy and cyberpunk, this novel has a really cool cyberpunk background to it. Seriously, I absolutely love the “world” of this novel 🙂

In terms of the writing, it’s reasonably good. The novel’s first-person narration is the kind of gritty, sarcastic, fast-paced narration that you’d expect to see in a good urban fantasy/thriller novel 🙂 The writing contains enough descriptions and characterisation to keep the story atmospheric, whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to keep things thrilling and intense too.

As for the characters, they’re really good. There’s certainly enough characterisation here to make you care about what happens to the characters. As you would expect, Dante Valentine gets the most characterisation – and she’s a rather interesting character. Although she clearly takes inspiration from Anita Blake (from Laurell K. Hamilton’s novels), I found Dante to be a more interesting character than Anita Blake.

In addition to being a total and utter badass (who mostly avoids the annoying “goody two-shoes” elements of Anita Blake’s character), Dante is also something of a social outcast (on account of her magical abilities) who is also grappling with both a grim past and a complex web of friendships and antagonism (especially since, amongst other things, Dante ends up being magically linked to a demon and also has to team up with her ex-boyfriend too).

And, yes, although this is one of those novels where the main characters spend quite a lot of time arguing with each other about various things, it never really becomes too obnoxious. If anything, it helps to add tension and drama to the story. This type of thing is quite difficult to get right, but this story seems to handle it pretty well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly reasonable. Although this story is 382 pages long (in the edition I read, the version in the anthology is shorter due to larger pages/smaller print), the fast-paced story and narration means that it never really feels too long. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, although the novel devotes quite a bit of time to characterisation etc…, it never really gets slow or boring.

All in all, this is a really cool novel 🙂 It’s always awesome to see the urban fantasy/horror genre being mixed with the cyberpunk and action-thriller genres 🙂 If you like writers like Jocelynn Drake or Mike Carey, then you’ll love this novel. Yes, it could possibly have done with a little bit more action and some scarier horror, but it’s still a wonderfully gripping and atmospheric novel nonetheless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Today’s Art (10th March 2019)

Well, since I had a bit more time than usual, I thought that I’d take a very short break from making photo-based paintings and make the kind of fun imaginative retro cyberpunk digitally-edited paintings that I haven’t made in ages. Seriously, the last time I posted a full painting in this genre here was in January!

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Formation” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Snow Crash” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

After I read Neal Stephenson’s astonishingly good “The Diamond Age“, one of the first things that I did was to enthusiastically order a second-hand copy of Stephenson’s most famous cyberpunk novel – “Snow Crash” (which was written before, and seems to be set before, “The Diamond Age”). I then… somehow didn’t get round to reading it until a little over a month later. Hence this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Snow Crash”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Penguin (UK) paperback reprint of “Snow Crash” (1992) that I read.

Snow Crash begins in a futuristic version of America that has no real central government. The country consists of lots of small “burbclaves” and “franchulates”, which are territories and outposts of various groups and organisations. And, part-time hacker, katana enthusiast and Mafia pizza delivery guy Hiro Protagonist is barrelling through them at a ridiculous speed in his car because if he doesn’t deliver a pizza within the next few minutes, the Mafia will not be pleased.

However, he is being chased. Not by the police (they don’t exist), but by a “kourier”. A teenaged skateboard-riding courier called Y.T., who works for the RadiKS corporation and gets around by car-surfing using a magnetic harpoon. And she’s just harpooned Hiro’s car. Hiro tries to shake her but then they both run into trouble and Hiro ends up crashing his car. With only a couple of minutes left on the pizza box’s electronic timer, Y.T. agrees to take the pizza. She somehow manages to deliver it on time, which impresses the Mafia.

A few days later, with no car left and his Mafia job just a memory, Hiro focuses on one of his other sidelines, gathering random information for a central database. To do this, he enters the Metaverse – a virtual reality world – but ends up returning to the headquarters of his old hacker buddies. When he enters the virtual building, a random stranger offers him a program called “Snow Crash”. He refuses, thinking that it’s probably just a virus.

After seeing his ex-girlfriend Juanita talk to his old friend Da5id, she warns him about Snow Crash. But, when Hiro talks to Da5id, the conversation turns to Snow Crash since Da5id has a copy of it. Since Da5id’s got more anti-virus software than a pharmacy, he decides to open the mystery program out of professional curiosity. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is… wow! This is a cyberpunk novel! Seriously, it’s up there with William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” in the pantheon of great cyberpunk novels. Imagine something like the anime version of “Ghost In The Shell” mixed with “The Matrix”, mixed with Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” graphic novels… then remember that “Snow Crash” was not only written before these three things (and probably inspired them), but that it’s about three times deeper and more complex too.

This novel is, like Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”, a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence. However, it is a bit more of an “accessible” novel than “The Diamond Age” is. Even so, you should probably take a few notes and set aside a fair amount of time to read it. But, trust me, it is well worth your while. To call this novel gripping would be an understatement – it is a fast-paced, slick thriller that somehow also manages to be extremely deep and complex at the same time.

There’s just so much to talk about in this novel. In essence, this is a novel about viruses – or, rather, how information can spread like a virus. It is also a novel about culture too – contrasting the fragmented cultures of the story’s micro-nations with Borg-like monocultures and/or religions. It is a novel about the “gig economy” (written before this phrase was even coined). It is a novel about the value of community and friendship. It is a novel about identity and identity politics. It is a piece of social satire. It is so, so many things. Seriously, if you want an intelligent novel, read this one (or “The Diamond Age”).

But this isn’t to say that this novel is boring. It really isn’t. Seriously, this is one of the few things that I’ve ever seen that can tell a thrillingly action-packed story that would put even the most spectacular modern CGI Hollywood movies to shame (and, remember, it was published in 1992!) whilst also being intelligent enough to have a deeper resonance and impact on your thoughts and emotions than you would expect.

The characters in “Snow Crash” are, in a word, brilliant. Although they are slightly stylised and larger-than-life (the main character is literally called “Hiro Protagonist”!), they come across as unique, interesting people. They’re also not really your typical thriller characters too – or at least they weren’t when this novel was published in 1992, so this novel is a really refreshing read.

Seriously, this novel’s characterisation is economical enough not to get in the way of the story whilst also being deep enough that – for example- you’ll find yourself welling up with tears whilst reading about a cybernetic dog called Fido who only appears in about two or three short scenes.

The writing and narration in this novel is brilliant. Cyberpunk narration typically relies on “information overload” in order to make the reader feel like they’ve been plonked into a high-tech future. This novel is no exception, but it does it in a bit more of a moderate and controlled fashion – and is paired with some brilliantly informal and fast-paced “matter of fact” narration. This informal tone really helps to put the “punk” into “cyberpunk”, whilst also being much more readable than the Victorian-style narration in Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” too. Seriously, this novel is that wonderful thing – a novel that is easy to read, yet incredibly sophisticated.

Literally, the only criticism I have of the writing in this novel is that it contains a few info-dumps about religions, ancient history etc… which are then concisely summarised in a seven-page segment later in the novel. The info-dump segments can break up the pace of the novel a little bit and it would have been even better if these parts had been left intriguingly mysterious, with the summary providing the reader with the information instead (which would also allow it to serve as a plot twist or a reveal too). Still, this is only a small criticism.

Although the edition of “Snow Crash” that I read is about 440 pages long, don’t let this fool you. This is one of those rare 400+ page novels that more than justifies it’s length. Seriously, it crams more into those 440 pages than many novels would struggle to do in 800. But, although this is a fast-paced, information-overload, adrenaline rush of a novel, don’t expect to blaze through it in a couple of evenings. Even though this novel travels at a hundred miles an hour, the road it travels along is thousands of miles long. But, this is a book that you’ll want to spend lots of time with.

In terms of how this 27 year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged incredibly well. The narration mostly still sounds incredibly fresh, the sci-fi stuff still seems incredibly futuristic and the story is still incredibly gripping. When this novel was first published, it was probably wildly ahead of it’s time. Even now, it still seems fairly modern and/or futuristic for the most part. Literally, the only clues that this novel is 27 years old is are the fact that there are a small number of brief “politically incorrect” moments that probably wouldn’t appear in a more modern novel.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece. If you love the cyberpunk genre, you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you want something with three times the intensity of the average spectacular modern Hollywood movie that also recognises that you have a brain and want to actually use it, then read this book. If you want a novel that makes you feel rebellious, read this one. If you want a gripping thriller, read this book. If you want to lose yourself in an interesting fictional world, read this book. In short, read this book.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.