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Tark peered through the undergrowth at the cave. All seemed peaceful and quiet. But appearances could be deceptive, especially in the Forest.
Tark had never taken on a dragon before. He’d never even seen one. He was just a common thiever and dragons were well out of his league. No one below a knight, second class, would attempt such an encounter. And yet, here he was.
‘Oi!’ Tark shouted as he approached the cave.
‘Dragon! Ya in there?’
Years ago when people still spoke about the Matrix films with an air of awed respect, I tended to be the one curmudgeon in the room who would pronounce Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon the far better film. Actually, now that I think about it, I am still saying this, except exchange The Matrix for Inception and it is pretty much the same argument.
Anyway, the reason I chose the more obscure film about characters attempting to escape from a virtual gaming world, was because I felt Oshii was far braver in his approach. In keeping with the Cartesian split between what is and what is fantasy, sf stories that deal with unreal worlds often insist that it is possible to return to an original ‘real world’. Oshii turns away from that and presents us with an infinite series of virtual worlds. ‘Reality’, is nothing more than a different perspective.
To find similar themes in a work of Young Adult fiction was certainly a great treat for me.
Tark and Zyra are thievers, trapped in a game-world that mixes medievil monsters with hi-tech artistocrats. The opening has Tark stalking a company through a dark forest, confident that the guards he sees protecting the company of travellers are little more than holograms. Instead his attack quickly goes wrong. Turns out the guards are quite real, their swords equally so and instead of the hoped for chest of gold, they are protecting a spoiled princeling named Galbrath. Through a combination of sheer luck and a refined ducking ability, Tark survives the encounter and even makes away with a powerful weapon – a power sword of pure light.
Meanwhile his partner Zyra is engaged on a job of her own, stealing a much-prized ‘key’, to Designer’s Paradise from a rival thiever named The Cracker. The key allows players within the gameworld to escape and can usually only be afforded by the very rich. Tark and Zyra have been stealing gold in order to purchase one, but now they have a key of their own they can leave this dangerous world of treacherous assassins and dragons behind.
Except little do they know, but both thievers have intruded upon the plans of the evil Fat Man. Sending his agents in pursuit of the two, they discover there is no safe place for them to hide, even beyond the borders of Designer’s Paradise.
I was mightily impressed by this book and am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Gamer’s Challenge. Yes this is a book for teens, but it does not stint on its own ambitious themes as a result. One aspect I loved was the near religious worship of the Designers, who instilled certain moral laws into the games these characters are trapped in. Tark and Zyra are in love, but the rules prevent them from any physical contact.
The story is quite fast-paced and introduces a series of increasingly outlandish villains and monsters as it progresses. An early stand-out is the ‘rat-mage’, a hivemind of underground tunnel rats who can create convincing illusions. The Fat Man himself is a diabolical force within the game, attempting to corrupt the gameworld to his own designs.
What I most enjoyed about the book is how Ivanoff has presented his readership with ideas and fictional concepts that they are no doubt familiar with due to the gaming industry – but they have perhaps not encountered before in books. Tark and Zyra even speak in the same kind of pidgin Old English familiar to those who have played any of the generic Fantasy RPGs of recent years. The closest comparison to this book in literature that I can think of is Charles Stross’ Glasshouse which was reviewed early on in this blog and dealt with similar material.
Exciting, imaginative and forward-looking, a real treat.
With thanks to the author for my review copy.
I stared at the leaflet in my hands. CAN A MACHINE SAVE YOUR SOUL? it demanded of me rhetorically. The word ‘machine’ had been printed in script designed to resemble an archaic computer display. ‘Soul’ was in flowing stereographic letters that danced all over the page. I turned over for the answer.
Folks before I get started, several folks have let me know there was a problem with yesterday’s post. Apparently the image used at the top of the article did not display properly. Please refresh the page with ‘https:’, to view the post correctly. I’ll have to investigate why the site is not displaying images properly.
Today’s book felt quite familiar for the first half. I realized it was because Richard Morgan‘s brand of intelligent cyberpunk/dystopic futurism reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Even the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is reminiscent of that other book’s protagonist, um, Hiro Protagonist (yes that is his name. Like Joyce’s Stephen Hero, but with ninja hacking skills).
Not only though does Kovacs have kick-ass fighting skills and the conditioning of a cold-blooded military assassin – he is functionally immortal. Which is a good thing too as in the opening pages of Altered Carbon he and partner Sarah are shot to death by a hit-squad.
Reborn in a new body, on an alien planet, Kovacs finds himself acclimatising rapidly. He is an Envoy, a specially engineered soldier, hardwired to be the most efficient killing machine possible. He can consciously control his emotions, how he feels pain, as well as an impressive rate of data retention. In effect he is an unstoppable killer with eidetic memory. Envoys were created to be expendable soldiers who learned from their experiences and could cope psychologically with repeatedly returning to life. Kovacs is relieved to find his new body shares many of the capabilities of his last form on the planet known as Harlan’s World.
Now though, he finds himself on Earth, that moribund birthplace of the expansionist human race. An incredibly wealthy ‘Meth’, which is short for Methuselah and denotes the social standing of a business aristocracy that can afford to have stored clones increasing their lifespan into hundreds of years, has hired Kovacs to solve a murder. His murder in fact, although the police are convinced that it is suicide. Kovacs quickly understands that he is not an employee, or a private contractor in this case. The ‘client’, Laurens Bancroft, effectively owns him. If Kovacs cannot unravel the mystery, the callous Meth can just fling his ‘stack’, the device that stores his personality, right back into storage.
Together with the help of wary cop Kristin Ortega and a sophisticated hotel A.I. named Hendrix who is addicted to guests, Kovacs is on the case. But he is a rogue factor that certain elements would prefer not to get too close to the reasons behind Bancroft’s ‘death’. His Envoy analytical prowess and fighting skills are the only things that give him an edge against assassins with multiple bodies, a duplicitous widow/wife and a criminal mastermind from his past.
Morgan fashions a narrative that is one part Neal Stephenson, one part Charles Stross and one part Raymond Chandler. In effect this is a detective mystery, complete with that favourite trope of mine – the investigator with a much damaged body, except that it is set a far flung future. There is even the requisite femme fatale, a love triangle, chase sequences through derelict streets – this book has it all.
Thankfully, for all its familiarity, Altered Carbon represents not only a well-told story, but an excellent debut from Morgan, who has since spun the guilt-wracked Kovacs into a series of novels. The vectoring of personalities courtesy of clones and a process known as ‘sleeving’, (as in to wear a sleeve) where the original persona of a body is replaced with another, is well sketched. The plot is focused mainly on the exploitation of the poor, with Kovacs blundering through brothels and illegal surgeries, where the bodies and minds of the helpless are stripped apart. The material is bleak, but leaved with Kovacs’ own gallows humour. There is even a fantastic scene with a character split into two bodies debates the progress of the story so far – although to reveal more would spoil the fun.
Thrilling science fiction with a gritty aftertaste.
He passes it and I rapidly read what he’s looking at. Domestic duties: the people of the dark ages, when living together, apparently divided up work depending on gender. Males held paid vocations; females were expected to clean and maintain the household, buy and prepare food, buy clothing, clean the clothing, and operate domestic machinery while their male worked. ‘This is crap! ‘ I say.
Robin is a warrior-historian in a post-human civilisation. Our planet is a dimly remembered historical footnote referred to as ‘Urth’. All time is measured in seconds. Key periods of human history have been erased due to censorship wars and a disease known as Curious Yellow. Humans have evolved beyond physical mortality itself, replicating themselves with multiple back-up bodies, and even customizing their own alien forms.
Robin has just been downloaded into a new body and has been warned by his former self that his life is in danger. Yet he flirts with death by engaging in duels and refusing to ‘back-up’ into a new body. His lover, Kay, has four arms, suffers from body dismorphia and enjoys having very public sex with him.
Got all that? Okay, now forget it.
Robin is Reeve, a petite housewife trapped in a loveless marriage to the monosyllabic Sam. Her friends are insufferably happy with their home lives while she is slowly going mad from the boredom of staying in the house all day waiting for her husband to return. Every Sunday the couples in the neighbourhood flock to their local church and are lectured on morality by the unctuous priest, Fiore.
Reeve begins to suspect that everyone is plotting against her. She suffers memory lapses and nightmares in which she is a man dueling with assassins in narrow streets, or is an armoured warrior slaughtering innocent civilians during a civil war. Is she Reeve, or is she Robin? What is real?
With Glasshouse, Stross mixes satire, simultaneously riffing on Ira Levin‘s classic The Stepford Wives and Patrick McGoohan‘s cult television series The Prisoner, with cutting edge futurism. The opening section of the novel can seem like obtuse technobabble, but once the nature of this future society becomes clear the book is transformed into a fascinating outsider perspective on contemporary morality and gender roles.
The futuristic society resembles a contemporary online video game, with humans able to heal themselves of any injury instantly, or live out a personal fantasy. The recreation of 20th century life is to Reeve, and the others trapped within the glasshouse, a dark age fantasy with confusing gender role-play, religious fanaticism and physical frailty. In the glasshouse Reeve is the ultimate inversion of the overly confident male Robin. Having to rely on her husband Sam to provide for and support her is frustrating. She is trapped in a body she didn’t choose, and forced through a combination of peer pressure and constant surveillance to live a life that disgusts her.
Stross’ take on post-human technology is fascinating, with the outsider perspective on contemporary life at times chilling but other times humourous. Brave the technobabble and you’ll discover a biting satire where a church service begins to the tune of Brecht’s Mack the Knife and participants in the dark ages experiment are rewarded with points for bearing children. The plot twists and turns, Stross exploiting the possibilities with identity crises and rampant paranoia making for a dizzying, dense read. I almost felt bad submitting it for this challenge.