Review: The Punch Escrow

2o Books of Summer: Book 7

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein is another fun discovery via NetGalley. Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport—a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan: Departure… Arrival… Delight!

Joel Byram, our smartass protagonist, is an everyday twenty-fifth century [sic] guy. He spends his days training artificial intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980s new wave—an extremely obscure genre[—]and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. Joel is pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems—until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting.

Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.

Even though I picked up The Punch Escrow for the teleportation mishaps, my favorite parts of the book were in the details: Joel’s day-job as a “salter” and the various types of AI. Salting:

Every choice [computers] came to could only be based on data and algorithms that had been preprogrammed into them. That’s not to say computers couldn’t get new ideas, but every new idea they got could only come from remixing old ideas, or external input from other computers, or through human input—which is where I came in.

We salters spent our days coming up with arbitrary puzzles that AI engines couldn’t grok. Every time a salter’s gambit was not anticipated by an app, that app got smarter by adding the unanticipated random logic set to its decision algorithm, and the salter got paid. Essentially, I made my living by being a smartass to apps. (Loc 229)

The sassy, back-talking computer is a staple of sci-fi (especially sci-fi that tries to be funny), but it feels more gimmicky than real. The Punch Escrow takes a cleverer approach by showing Joel outsmart apps to teach them nuances of language such as double entendres and humor. Seeing various types of AI (rooms, vehicles, personal assistants) analyze Joel’s requests and wordplay is satisfying. Each responds in its own way according to its programming and function. There is more thought and care in these scenes than I expected from the outset. From the blurb, I worried the book would verge on silly/slapdash as Joel ran around cracking one-liners. Instead, the salting scenes occur naturally as Joel struggles to return to his wife.

Self-described “smartass” characters can either be fun or prompt much eye-rolling. Smartassery is something that must be conveyed through a character’s dialogue and actions; as soon as a first-person narrator describes him/herself as smart, witty, or clever they aren’t. Joel’s braggy nature brings him close to this line, but he became more self-aware just as he approached my last nerve. Once there’s a second Joel running around (“Joel²”), Joel evaluates some of his own personality traits the way an outsider might and draws the same conclusions as the reader. In these self-aware moments, he reminisces about his wife. Given that Joel’s internal monologue carries the book (and there are two of him), other characters drift to the background. Joel’s musings on Sylvia keep her around and develop her character despite her limited screentime. Joel’s overall goal is to find her, and this isn’t a compelling quest unless the reader invests in their relationship.

Some of the early reviews play up the “hard sci-fi” angle, and while The Punch Escrow certainly qualifies as such, it’s not as technical as you might think. Complicated explanations are filtered through Joel’s no-nonsense style, and his analogies make the connections between the science and plot simple to follow. Klein strikes a good balance: there’s enough science to legitimize the story, but not so much that Joel stoops to lecturing. There are philosophical and ethical dilemmas sprinkled throughout, too. Alas, my anti-spoilers policy…

But wait, there’s a tiny nitpick about Joel’s musical tastes:

I’m not a fan of the 1980s nostalgia in futuristic books. It makes sense, intellectually, because there are plenty of people who listen to centuries-old music. There’s a push-pull created when using the 1980s, though. It’s nice to hum along with the character, but 1980s music prompts images of giant boom boxes and bright clothing which clash against sleek, futuristic worlds. I’m not sure why the 1980s stand out in this way; if a character listens to Mozart, I don’t imagine them in a powdered wig. I suspect my knee-jerk revulsion to 1980s tunes in sci-fi is because of Ready Player One and its lists, lists, and more lists of 1980s cultural references. (Btw, I’m timing a SBIRIFY post to coincide with Ready Player One‘s release…) At least Joel limits his 1980s love to a few songs.

Overall: 4.4  There is one minor issue that might be a plot hole, but I’ve got my fingers crossed it’ll be handled in the other books (a sequel and prequel). (If not, you’ll hear about it then.) The climax is a bit formulaic, but it’ll play well if The Punch Escrow is made into a movie. Quick note on formatting: I’d recommend a print copy over an ebook due to the number/length of the footnotes. Personally, I find it easier to flip around a paper copy than an ebook.

Translation: Read it.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Inkshares Geek & Sundry (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

 

13 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  9. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  10. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  12. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  13. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Stargazer’s Embassy

Parts of this review sound a little harsh, but overall I liked the vibe and conclusion of Eleanor Lerman’s The Stargazer’s Embassy.

The Stargazer’s Embassy explores the frightening phenomenon of alien abduction from a different point of view: in this story, it is the aliens who seem fearful of Julia Glazer, the woman they are desperately trying to make contact with. Violent and despairing after the murder of the one person she loved, a psychiatrist who was studying abductees, Julia continues to rebuff the aliens until her relationships with others who have met “the things,” as she calls them, including a tattoo artist, a strange man who can take photographs with the power of his mind, and an abductee locked up in a mental hospital, force her deeper into direct alien contact and a confrontation about what death means to humans and aliens alike. (blurb from Goodreads)

What attracted me to this book is that it promises a new angle on the classic alien-abduction tale. I picked it up to learn why aliens—typically otherworldly and powerful—are so frightened of Julia Glazer. For much of the book, her apparent lack of curiosity and deep loathing strike an odd chord. The aliens are creepy when they show up unexpectedly, but they seem sad, even a little pathetic:

It was wearing a long, ill-fitting tan raincoat with prominent epaulets and a pair of what looked like white go-go boots. On its head was a baseball cap pulled low over its face, and it had completed this ridiculous outfit with a pair of oversize sunglasses that might have been worn by some would-be glam rocker a decade ago.
“Is this what you think people look like now?” I snapped at the thing. (Loc 250)

Other characters, the abductees studied by Julia’s psychiatrist boyfriend, John, report terrifying and disturbing encounters. That The Stargazer’s Embassy features two types of aliens (creepy experimenters and lousy dressers) widens the mystery of why Julia is special. Despite the range, most of the mythology centers around the story of Barney and Betty Hill and Betty’s infamous star map. (If you’re not familiar with this particular tale, I recommend looking it up. It’ll grab your imagination whether or not you think the truth is out there.)

The conclusion of the book is surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful, but the first half has its weaknesses. The back cover names John the “one person [Julia] loved,” but their connection is thin. John is a poorly drawn character. His only dialogue is exposition: theories about alien abductions, his work with the abductees, and vague details about his past. His dialogue advances the plot and story, but does nothing to make him three-dimensional. Julia might as well date a Wikipedia article. Scenes that don’t include one of his lectures are typically summarized:

I found [John] drinking coffee with Nicky. They both teased me about sleeping late, but they could probably tell I wasn’t in the mood to be joked with, so they let that go. I poured myself some coffee and devoted myself to reading a copy of the local paper that was lying on the kitchen table while the two men talked about the traffic that John and I might encounter on the drive home, since we planned to leave soon. After a while, John said he would go pack up our things so we could get going. (Loc 1430)

When I read this scene, it struck me that John had spoken so few non-expository lines that I had no idea how he might joke with Julia or make small talk with Nick. I had to take Julia’s word that she cared about him because there was so little warmth or emotion between them. Part of this is due to the closed-off nature of her character, but the other part comes from not having a clear image of John. Once he’s gone, Julia relies more on herself, and the side characters are kept to the side. It’s okay that she doesn’t have deep relationships with them because she doesn’t claim to.

I was pleasantly surprised that the story I delayed reading in case it was too frightening or unsettling turned out to be clever and imaginative. There’s a lot of potential here, but the poor characterization of John kept me from investing in the first half of the book. The second half redeems it just because it is such a different take on why aliens might want or need to contact humans. It is thought-provoking and eerie in all the best ways.

Overall: 3.6  The first half is comparatively weak and Julia is one of few fully-articulated characters. The book gets points for originality and creativity even though it’s flat in places.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mayapple Press (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Book of Strange New Things

the-book-of-strange-new-things_coverFive-hundred page books aren’t easy to read straight through, but Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a brilliant exception.

Back cover:
Called to a mission of a lifetime, Peter travels light-years from his wife, Bea, to an astonishing new environment. He’s to preach to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings. But when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate—natural disasters are rampant and governments are crumbling—her faith begins to falter. Peter, rattled and heartsick, is forced to choose: historic humanitarian work, or the love of his life.

The bit about light-years isn’t metaphorical: Peter blasts into space to proselytize to aliens. There are basic comparisons to be made with The Poisonwood Bible (which I read right before), but Peter lacks a sense of superiority or cruelty towards the natives, called Oasans. Because Strange New Things is about an encounter between two completely different species, it doesn’t share Poisonwood’s commentary on race and power. Ultimately, this makes Strange New Things a lighter read, but there’s an ominous sense throughout that Peter, blinded by naïve awe, is overlooking something obvious and dark.

There are two stories operating simultaneously: 1) Peter and Bea’s long-distance relationship, and 2) Peter’s outreach efforts to the Oasans. Peter and Bea can’t communicate by phone or video; they’re limited to email. Because the narration is in close third-person (following Peter), the reader knows nothing about Bea’s life on Earth beyond her typed words. She and Peter have numerous misunderstandings as they mistake each other’s tone and try to guess the other’s thoughts. These letters, and Peter’s reactions, are effective in putting the reader on his side. The reader knows exactly as much about her current life as Peter so her words are as unexpected to the reader as they are to him.

There’s talk of making The Book of Strange New Things into a television show and these letters are the aspect I most worry about in an adaptation. Putting blocks of text on screen would look terrible and show-runners will want Bea to be a proper character. It’s likely that a photogenic actress will be cast to read Bea’s tales of woe, possibly over a montage of ruined cities. The viewer would then see Bea’s perspective in addition to Peter’s, but the novel is better for being Peter-centric. It makes the distance more palpable. Peter isn’t just cut off from Bea, but from everyone on Earth. As Bea’s life enters unfamiliar territory, a gap widens in their relationship and he throws himself deeper into his mission.

And what to say about the mission without divulging spoilers?
The most engaging element of this book is the way Oasan culture is slowly unspooled and revealed to Peter. Oasans speak their own language which is written in non-standard characters. As Peter grows accustomed to their way of speaking, the dialogue includes more of these characters for an immersive experience. At times, Peter’s evangelical side is tiring; he uses a lot of cliches and platitudes in early chapters. It’s not his religiosity that grows tiresome, but its simplicity and his resultant lack of intellectual curiosity. Though he’s often eye-rollingly saccharine, he’s sincere and means well. He becomes more interesting when interacting with the Oasans.

Yes, the mission was daunting and, yes, he wasn’t in the best shape. But here he was, on the threshold of meeting an entirely new kind of people, an encounter chosen for him by God. Whatever was fated to happen, it would surely be precious and amazing. His whole life—he understood that now, as the facades of the unknown city loomed up before him, harboring unimaginable wonders—his whole life had been leading up to this. (98)

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5)  Solid, entertaining, very unique and compulsively readable. The level of detail makes events with the Oasans easy to imagine despite their strangeness. I read all 500 pages in one sitting and my husband read it in two.

Translation: Read it.

Review: Jurassic Park

jurassic park_cover20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 7

In my early teens, I read Michael Crichton’s books over and over, but not Jurassic Park. Instead, I watched the movie 30 times and pounced on the sequel as soon as I knew it existed. Reading Crichton still feels nostalgic. I remember counting down to the release of his final books and being immersed in the possibility of time travel, nanobots, mind-reading spheres, dinosaurs…and all the rest he imagined. Crichton had a unique gift for adding the right amount of science to his fiction. He often began with a contemporary world filled with recognizable characters before tweaking the science to build something fantastic.

Because of the title, and the back cover, and because darn near everyone saw the awesome film adaptation in 1993 (which has held up, btw), there’s not a lot of mystery around Jurassic Park‘s basic plot:

From the back cover:
An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now, one of mankind’s most thrilling fantasies has come true. Creatures extinct for eons now roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery and all the world can visit them—for a price. Until something goes wrong….

The story is set before the park opens. Dr. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler (who is a 24-year old grad student in the book) are pulled away from their newly discovered raptor skeleton by John Hammond, their patron, to provide a consultation in Costa Rica. Once there, they’re acquainted with a mathematician obsessed by chaos theory (Ian Malcolm), Hammond’s grandkids (Tim and Lex), a host of Jurassic Park employees, and DINOSAURS. (Parts of this book make me regress to a 12-year-old. Sorry.) Unlike the movie, which enjoys making folks run, climb, and hide to avoid hungry, aggressive dinos, Crichton’s story is more technical. The book focusses on the implications of this awesome scientific leap and the danger of resurrecting dinosaurs; the movie, in contrast, is devoted to the dinosaurs’ intense power and dedicates large chunks of screen time as a PSA that dinosaurs are cool and majestic.

Right from the start, it’s clear Crichton’s Jurassic Park is never going to open. When Alan and Ellie arrive and visit their guest suite, they find a room still under construction with subtle clues that something is awry. The lodge differs from the plans Hammond shared with them in a key way:

“But did you notice anything about the rooms, Alan?”
“They changed the plans.”
“I think so, yes.” She moved around the room. “The windows are small,” she said. “And the glass is tempered, set in a steel frame. The doors are steel-clad. That shouldn’t be necessary. And did you see the fence when we came in?”
Grant nodded. The entire lodge was enclosed within a fence, with bars of inch-thick steel. The fence was gracefully landscaped and painted flat black to resemble wrought iron, but no cosmetic effort could disguise the thickness of the metal, or its twelve-foot height. “I don’t think the fence was in the plans, either,” Ellie said. “It looks to me like they’ve turned this place into a fortress.”
Grant looked at his watch. “We’ll be sure to ask why,” he said. (87)

That the resort side of the island was redesigned for greater security tells you the park has learned something about its dinosaurs in the time between hatching the idea and hatching little velociraptors. When you add this to the ominous tone of the opening chapters which suggest small dinosaurs may have escaped and that a park worker has been grievously injured, there’s no point at which the reader takes Jurassic Park’s safety measure and protocols seriously. It’s always a house of cards. And it’s wonderfully intense watching everything fall.

There’s still running from dinosaurs, as in the movie, but Crichton slips in more character development, more scientific questions, and more technical thrills. When I picked up this book, I expected to encounter a wordy screenplay. It never occurred to me that the story would be noticeably different, or that it wouldn’t be as flashy or full of jump scares as the movie. Maybe I was dismissive on some level because, you know, dinosaurs, but the book never breaks into silliness or improbability. It’s gripping, authentic, and takes a stab at legit technological and moral questions.

Reading this book in 2015 (25 years after its writing) presents an interesting angle, but even though the book was written to speak lovingly of 90s tech, it doesn’t feel dated:

“First, InGen shipped three Cray XMPs to Costa Rica. InGen characterized it as a transfer within company divisions, and said they weren’t for resale. But OTT couldn’t imagine why the hell somebody’d need that power in Costa Rica.”
“Three Crays,” Grant said. “Is that a kind of computer?” (39)

Because I was alive and fascinated by computers in the 90s, I remember reading about these:

cray x-mp

Happily, Crichton’s description doesn’t involve the size or give specific processing information for the Crays. There’s nothing in his writing to invite mental images of “slow” and bulky 90s tech. When explaining how long it takes to process DNA information, Crichton’s computers still sound impressive. Sure, they take a few minutes to process a chunk of DNA, but when you read this after reading about the incredible complexity of a DNA strand (even a fragment!) your net impression is wonder at the complexity of life, not at the timing of an old computer. You would think a book that makes a plot point out of technological limitations would struggle to feel timeless. The tech alone should plant it firmly in a decade, but Crichton’s energy and focus on the creative, on the larger questions of bioengineering, and DINOSAURS, give the book an unexpected timeless quality. What skill!

(Let’s not talk about the screen caps towards the end! :P)

Overall: 4.8

Translation: Read it!! It’s a quick read—good for a weekend.