Today’s Art (29th December 2019)

This is a vaguely 1990s-style sci-fi/cyberpunk digitally-edited drawing that I made when I was feeling slightly tired. Although it ended up being a bit more minimalist than I’d expected, it still turned out better than I’d thought it would.

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

“Data Room” By C. A. Brown

Review: “Idoru” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was still in the mood for some 1990s sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru”. This novel is the second novel in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” (you can see my review of the first one here) and, like the rest of the trilogy, it is a book that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I found it in a second-hand bookshop at least a decade ago.

Interestingly, although this novel is the second novel in a trilogy, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone story. Yes, a few familiar faces from “Virtual Light” appear as background characters and there are a few brief references to stuff from that novel but, for the most part, this is a self-contained cyberpunk novel that can probably be enjoyed without reading “Virtual Light”.

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

This is the 1997 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Idoru” that I read.

Set in the near-future, the novel begins with ex-security guard Rydell passing on a job offer from a company called Paragon-Asia Dataflow to a talented data analyst called Colin Laney who is staying at the same hotel as him. When Laney flies out to Tokyo for the interview, he ends up meeting a sociologist called Yamazaki and a burly, scarred Australian man called Blackwell. Moving between various bars and restaurants, Laney tells the two men the story of how he came to be fired from his previous job at an unscrupulous gossip site called Slitscan.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, several teenage members of the American fan club for ageing rock band Lo/Rez are meeting up to discuss rumours that one member, Rez, has decided to marry a famous A.I. construct called Rei Toei. After some discussion, one of the members steals some of her father’s frequent flier miles and hands them to another member called Chia, who is dispatched to Tokyo to find out more….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric story that is also ridiculously ahead of it’s time too. Plus, it is also more of a cyberpunk novel than “Virtual Light” was, albeit with a slightly more understated and realistic atmosphere than in any of Gibson’s classic 1980s cyberpunk novels (like “Neuromancer”). Seriously, this novel is really cool 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s sci-fi elements. Although there’s all the classic cyberpunk stuff like virtual reality, nanotechnology, A.I. etc.. the most interesting “futuristic” part of this novel is how accurately Gibson predicted a lot of stuff about the modern internet.

Whether it is the novel’s cynical depiction of internet journalism, how the internet has affected fame, the way old music still seems “current” thanks to the internet, scenes involving something similar to the dark web, lots of stuff about privacy and big data or even a scene where a character is blackmailed with something very similar to a modern “deepfake” video, this novel often reads like a brilliantly cynical satire of the modern internet… that was first published in 1996. Just let that sink in for a minute. 1996.

Like with “Virtual Light”, this novel is also something of a thriller too. But, unlike the slightly more action-packed storyline of “Virtual Light”, this is much more of a tense suspenseful thriller that gradually builds up an atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and unease. There are lots of mini-cliffhangers, scenes where characters find themselves “out of their depth” and scenes where characters are followed by ruthless villains. In a lot of ways, this focus on suspense reminded me a little bit of 1990s horror novels by Ryu Murakami like “Piercing” and “In The Miso Soup”.

I cannot praise the atmosphere and locations in this novel highly enough 🙂 If you enjoyed the atmospheric settings of either of the 1990s Ryu Murakami novels I mentioned earlier, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. Although Gibson’s fictional version of Tokyo contains some futuristic elements and is presented from more of a tourist’s perspective, it is a really fascinating and vividly-described location that really helps the novel to come alive.

Literally my only criticism of the settings is that the novel’s most intriguing location, a hidden virtual reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City, only appears during a few brief scenes and isn’t really described in the level of detail that I’d expected (and it’s probably more there as a metaphor for the benefits and drawbacks of online anarchy). Given how fascinating photos, videos etc… of this demolished city are, it is a bit of a shame that such an intriguing location doesn’t get more time in this story. Still, the very fact that it is there is incredibly cool.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is – like in “Virtual Light” – written in a slightly more understated version of Gibson’s classic writing style. In other words, the narration in this novel is a brilliant mixture of more hardboiled, flowing, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and lots of vivid, detailed, slow-paced and atmospheric descriptions 🙂 Seriously, I love how Gibson is able to write in a style that is both fast and slow-paced at the same time and which is also both pulpy and intellectual at the same time.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. They all seem like fairly realistic people and the novel also handles characterisation in different ways for several characters too. With Laney, the bulk of his characterisation focuses on his backstory. With Chia, the bulk of her characterisation focuses on her music fandom, her friendships, her impressions of Tokyo and how she handles various dangerous situations. With Blackwell, we get a few tantalising pieces of backstory but most of his characterisation is done via actions, descriptions and dialogue. I could go on for a while, but this variety of characterisation types really helps to add a lot more intrigue to the characters.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At a fairly efficient 292 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted here. As I hinted at earlier, this novel is both fast and slow-paced at the same time, with the suspense, multiple plot threads, writing style and premise keeping this novel gripping, but with lots of slower descriptive moments that really help the story to come alive. On the whole, this novel’s pacing is really good – with the story gradually building in suspense and scale as it progresses.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel’s internet-related satire is ridiculously ahead of it’s time and the story also still remains very compelling when read today. Yes, there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments and some elements of the story do seem a bit ’90s – such as a possible ’90s computer game reference (eg: a rock band called “The Dukes Of Nuke ‘Em”) but, on the whole, this novel is very much ahead of it’s time.

All in all, this is a really cool novel 🙂 It’s an atmospheric, compelling and intelligent cyberpunk thriller that is also very far ahead of it’s time too.

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

Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission” By Susan Wright (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for novelisations and/or spin-off novels, so I thought that I’d take a look through my collection of second-hand “Star Trek” novels for books that I didn’t get round to reading when I went through a “Star Trek” phase in 2011-13. Out of the unread books, the novel I chose was Susan Wright’s 1994 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”.

Although this novel tells a new self-contained “Star Trek: TNG” story, it is clearly aimed at people who are fairly knowledgeable about the TV series and it contains quite a few references, characters and background events that will only really make sense if you’ve seen episodes like “The Drumhead” and “The Nth Degree” and have a general knowledge of the lore/backstory of the series. In other words, unlike some of the spin-off novels, you pretty much have to be a Trekkie to get the most of out of this one.

So, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission” that I read.

The novel begins with Picard watching a production of “Cyrano De Bergerac” in the holodeck before he is joined by Troi, who is worried about both Worf and a part-Romulan medical technician called Simon Tarses. Both are experiencing emotional problems related to being torn between two cultures.

The USS Enterprise is on a mission to the planet Lessenar in order to provide disaster relief and to begin efforts to clean up the planet’s heavily-polluted atmosphere. However, before they can land on the planet, an old cruise ship called the Prospector shows up in order to take a look at Lessenar’s beautiful green atmosphere. Although Picard wants to shoo the ship away, the Prospector‘s captain is a charismatic man who also knows Worf’s foster parents. So, reluctantly, Picard allows the ship to stay.

However, sometime later, there is an explosion along the Prospector‘s hull. Although Picard’s crew manage to save almost everyone on board, one of a group of five squid/jellyfish-like emotion-broadcasting creatures called Sli is killed in the explosion. The Sli are on the Prospector as entertainment and are managed by a Ferengi called Mon Hartag, who demands a full and urgent investigation into the explosion….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it took a little while to get going and was a little different to what I’d expected, it is a really atmospheric and compelling story that manages to achieve more detail, depth and drama than an episode of the TV show could ever dream of achieving. In other words, although this book is on the slow-paced side of things and might seem a little “boring” at first, it gets a lot better if you stick with it.

Interestingly, despite the story’s familiar sci-fi trappings, it is actually more of a mixture between a detective story and a psychological drama than a traditional “Star Trek” story. Yes, there is a lot of futuristic technology, lots of Star Trek stuff and a sub-plot about communicating with a mysterious alien species, but the sci-fi stuff here is more to add depth, flavour and intensity to the story’s detective and drama elements – and it does this really well.

In other words, this is a very character-focused novel that also relies heavily on suspense and mystery. In addition to the detective elements, which are handled fairly well (with, for example, several people having possible motives, Troi conducting empathic investigations etc…), the emotions broadcast by the Sli also affect the crew in all sorts of ways, leading to lots of tense moments and a real atmosphere of paranoia during some moments of the story. Needless to say, this really helps to keep the story compelling whilst also making it refreshingly different from a typical “Star Trek: TNG” novel.

And, whilst this novel is still in keeping with the style and tone of the TV series, the increased focus on the personal and psychological lives of several crew members in addition to the fact that they express emotions a bit more freely also makes parts of this novel reminiscent of something like “Babylon 5“, which really adds extra drama, depth, realism and creativty to the story. Even so, if you were expecting a more “traditional” spin-off novel, then this might catch you by surprise. But, if you stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded with something like an enhanced version of the original TV series.

Thematically, this novel is as complex as you’d expect. The novel’s themes include things like being stuck between two cultures, communications, psychology, economic inequality, the environment and repressed emotions. Not only is it cool to see a “Star Trek” novel where the characters aren’t quite as repressed as usual, but the novel also manages to make it’s points about the environment without descending too far into preaching at the reader. In fact, there’s this brilliant moment where Picard actually orders Riker not to deliver a self-righteous lecture to the people on Lessenar. So, it’s good to see a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence.

In terms of the characters, this novel is absolutely stellar. This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, although this does slow the story down quite a bit, it really adds a lot of extra atmosphere, drama and realism to the story. Not only that, because of the novel’s detailed focus on psychology, emotions etc… it can also tell a rich and complex story that probably wouldn’t work on TV (seriously, it’s so good to see a spin-off novel that plays to the unique strengths of the written word).

Although the main characters of this novel are probably Worf and Troi, pretty much every character here gets a level of characterisation that makes them feel like real, complex people. The cumulative effect of this is that you actually feel like you’re there on the Enterprise, seeing the everyday lives of the characters in a way that other sci-fi shows, like “Babylon 5”, do so well. Although the plot is fairly compelling and well-planned, this is one of those novels where the characters are the most important part of the story.

Even so, one slight criticism of the novel’s characters is that Worf comes across as slightly too aggressive during the earlier parts of the story. However, given the various personal stresses he is facing at the time and the novel’s theme of repressed emotions, this change in his character sort of makes sense. Even so, it’s a little surprising if you’re used to the TV series version of Worf.

As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration uses a very slightly more descriptive and formal (but still reasonably “matter of fact”) writing style. Although this slows down the pace of the story a bit, it also allows for a lot more atmosphere, depth etc.. to the story too. Given that this is a slightly more complex, character-based novel, this writing style works really well here.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a reasonably efficient 277 pages in length, this novel doesn’t look too long. However, as mentioned earlier, this novel is slightly more on the slower-paced side of things and takes a little while to really get going. Even so, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more compelling. Not only that, the slower-paced storytelling also gives the novel time to build atmosphere, suspense etc… that pays off later in the story.

As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Although it might be a little slow-paced or formal by modern standards, the character-based focus of the story, the futuristic setting and the emphasis on things like psychology and emotions mean that this story is pretty much timeless.

All in all, although this novel is a bit more slow-paced than I’d expected and is a little different to a typical TNG spin-off novel, it is really brilliant 🙂 Not only does it leverage the strengths of the written word to tell a story that the TV show would probably have difficulty handling well, but it also contains stellar characterisation, a brilliantly immersive atmosphere and a rather compelling plot too. Even so, this is very much a novel for die-hard fans of the show (and it may be a little confusing if you’ve only seen a few episodes).

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