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Book Review: Mark of the Harbinger: Fall of Eden by Chris R. McCarthy

August 11, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Mark of the Harbinger: Fall of Eden by Chris R. McCarthySummary:
Humanity, desperate to save themselves from oncoming meteors that will destroy Earth, builds two spaceships and binds them together into one unit.  They fill it with the best and brightest of humanity then send it off into space, with nanobots working to keep them all perpetually the same age they were when entering the ship, hoping that they will find another habitable planet.  But over the thousands of years of searching, the two ships have slowly evolved into one of beauty, order, and plenty of food.  The other has become a prison ship, full of starvation and degradation.  Both ruled by an artificial intelligence known as Ark.  When a man awakes on the prison ship, he must discover who he is and why he has been awakened.

Review:
The basic idea of a ship full of thousands of people wandering outer space for thousands of years and how that impacts their culture is a good one.  But it is unfortunately supported by weak characterization, quite a bit of telling instead of showing (often in the form a conversational infodump), questionable science, and aggravating plot twists.

I am not a scifi reader who expects everything to be Asimov or heavy on the science.  I enjoy the broad range that scifi has to offer.  But I do expect a scifi that takes itself seriously, as this one does, to have: a plot that makes sense, at least two characters who are well-rounded and richly presented, and any science within it to be accurate or at least plausible.  This scifi definitely takes itself seriously, but it fails on these marks.

The book opens with a first person narration of the nameless hero (later named Harbinger) believing he is being dissected by an alien race.  It takes quite a bit of time to find out that he was cryogenically frozen on this ship, and the rebels of the prison ship have woken him up.  If this wasn’t a review copy, I probably would have given up before Harbinger figures this out, because the reader has zero reason to care about this character who is being dissected, apparently.  It’s quite jarring to open up the book that way, and it’s hard to read with no investment in any of the characters at all.  It’s a rough beginning.

Harbinger has amnesia, so he can’t help the rebels figure out why exactly he was on the ship.  But they do discover that he has superhuman powers, just as the rebels were hoping, so they want him to help them fight for access back to Echelon–the ship that is not a prison  (There are names for both ships, but I honestly can’t remember what the name of the prison ship was.)  The rebel character who works closest with Harbinger is a woman named Leema.  Harbinger gets slightly more characterization than Leema, because we are inside his head.  But both come across as flat. Their actions appear to exist entirely as plot devices and not out of real, rich motivation.  For instance, Leema seems mostly to exist to give Harbinger information, to have sex with, then to spur him to make certain decision.  She doesn’t come across as a person so much as a plot device.  The same can be said for the leader of the rebels, Argus, an older man who calls people “son.”  He simply does not feel real.  He feels like a plot device who pops in whenever it’s necessary to make something happen to Harbinger.

The writing often relies on conversational infodump, which is a shame, because when there are action sequences, they are interesting and exciting.  The periodic action sequences are what kept me reading.  They are well-written, particularly the fight scenes.  But when the characters talk, the conversation doesn’t feel real.  It feels like the author is speaking directly to the reader through the characters, often to provide background information.  This is known as an infodump, and it’s frustrating to read.  It would be better to work this information into the plot, rather than have characters sit in a room and say it at each other for chapters at a time.

The science is a bit shaky.  For instance, the spaceship is decorated with marble.  Real marble.  Real marble is incredibly heavy, and there’s a weight limit that spaceships can handle.  It’s hard to imagine a people desperate to save humanity from meteors wasting precious weight space on marble decorations.  Similarly, Harbinger is never fully explained.  He appears to be human and bleeds but can’t feel pain, has superhuman strength, can only be killed by cutting off his head.  Is he a robot? Or a genetically modified humanoid? Maybe a clone?  Leema explains “his kind” being created but she seems to know very little about it, which makes it odd that she and the rebels knew enough to know how to break him free from Ark by cutting into him and adjusting things inside his body.  The core of the idea is good but it’s just not explained enough. That is really what makes some of the science in the book weak.  It’s not gone into in enough depth to make enough sense.

Finally, the plot makes quite a few quick zany twists, most of which I was willing to give a pass.  The final twist, however, made me want to throw my kindle against the wall.  (I didn’t, because I like my kindle).  I’m sure the final plot twist was intended to make the reader want to continue on to the next book in the series, but it actually just left me feeling deeply unsatisfied and frustrated.  If I had to put my finger on what made it so frustrating, I’d say that it felt forced, not organic.

Overall, this book consists of a good basic idea that suffers from infodumping, weak characters, and being forced to stick to a plot that doesn’t feel organic.  Rich characters who drove an organic plot free of infodumps could have made this into an interesting world and cultural exploration.  Instead, it’s a frustrating read.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: iD by Madeline Ashby (Series, #2)

Person's face surrounded by variosu pieces of technology.Summary:
Javier is a vN. A self-replicating humanoid robot built by fundamentalist Christians to help humanity left behind after the rapture but then bought out and sold by a secular organization after the Christian company failed.  He was living on an island run by his powerful vN girlfriend, Amy.  Free from all humans and therefore free from the failsafe that makes him avoid harming them at all costs.  He wants his failsafe-free girlfriend to free him from his own, but she refuses.  So when a human shows up on the island and activates his failsafe, everything comes crashing down around him.  Now he’s on a race to save Amy….and destroy his failsafe.

Review:
I was really excited for the second book in this series about ai written by a woman author.  I love getting to see scifi topics like ai explored from a woman’s perspective.  So I was a bit disappointed to have the story shift focus from a woman in the first book (Amy) to a man in the second (Javier).

Ripping Amy out from under us is an interesting choice.  On the one hand, I appreciate series that switch perspectives like this because we get to see more of the world of the novel and gain a clearer understanding of it.  On the other hand, part of why I liked the series to begin with was that we were seeing a powerful female robot for once.  So I was skeptical about this choice at first.  Ultimately, however, the perspective switch worked for me because it basically is following the hero’s sidekick when the hero is decommissioned.  It’s still interesting to see the gender swap happening in the sidekick.  It’s also interesting because although Javier is male, he’s also a robot with a failsafe, so he is more akin to an enslaved person than to a humanoid free male.  It’s interesting but it saddens me that this perspective makes it seem like things like trading sex for travel are the only options for people in that situation.  Sex is power, yes, but it’s not the only tool women have available to them.  I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that the book seems to be saying that anyone in that situation, regardless of gender, would use these resources because they have to.  I can see not having a lot of choices. And I can understand having to choose to do something you don’t morally want to do because the end result is so needed.  But I would expect to see a lot of soul searching and thought process behind that choice because it is still a choice.  Javier doesn’t seem to do much choosing or thinking, and I think that’s not a fair representation of what it actually is like to be a woman.  We still have choices, and because it’s not always easy to do precisely what we want to do, what choice we make takes more thoughtfulness, if anything. There’s not always a good choice available. But there are always choices.  I would like to have seen Javier doing more thinking and choosing between different difficult choices rather than seeing himself as having to do X to get to Z.

The world building is still strong in this book.  Instead of being stuck on an island for the whole time, the events in the beginning of the book allow us to see much of the world, not just America, through the eyes of Javier.  There is, unfortunately, quite a bit of confusion in the world at this time so it’s difficult to understand precisely what is going on or how the world got to this place.  I believe this is just the situation that is typical of a second book in a series (or the third book in the trilogy), so I expect a lot of the confusion to clear up in the third book.  If anything the mystery increased with this book, which is not a bad thing.

Overall, this book builds further on the world presented in vN through the eyes of Amy’s male sidekick, Javier.  Some of the precise effects of the gender swapping and queering of gender in the robots isn’t as well thought-out as it could be but this does not detract from the interesting perspective on artificial intelligence presented by Ashby.  Fans of the first book should hold out beyond the first couple of chapters and give Javier a chance as our guide through the world.  The perspective he brings is still unique to the world of ai scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
vN, review

Book Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?

Review:
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves.  So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain.  In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist.  It’s a fascinating topic.  In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses.  The narration is in third person.  It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred.  We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero.  But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator.  Who is s/he?  How does s/he know so much about this project?  A project which clearly would be classified as top secret?  What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator.  If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book.  Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it.  But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoilers*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence.  The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars.  They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated.  Seriously. This is mind-blowing.  Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane.  In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.”  I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary.  The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision.  AI did.  This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does.  It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well?  I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot.  What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal.  It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story.  Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value.  It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoilers*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished.  Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot.  It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome.  It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional.  At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable.  Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person.  I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned.  The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution.  This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in.  This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it.  I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also  be able to critique this.  Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them.  This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch.  It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: vN by Madeline Ashby (series, #1)

A white woman's face surrounded by machine parts.Summary:
Amy is 5 year old robot. An exact replica–iteration–of her mother, who is in a relationship with a human male.  Her parents are restricting her food to raise her slowly at a human child’s pace instead of at a robot’s.  But when her grandmother shows up to her kindergarten graduation and threatens her mother, things go haywire.  It quickly becomes apparent that the failsafe that makes robots love humans innately and makes them incapable of withstanding seeing violence against humans has failed to activate in Amy.  She finds herself full-grown and on the run from humans and her robot aunts alike as she struggles to figure out who she is and what her existence means to humanity.

Review:
Artificial Intelligence/Robot books tend to take a bit more to draw me in than say a zombie book.  It’s really hard to do AI in a way that is simultaneously scientifically/culturally believable and unique.  Frankly, I need a bit more believability in an AI book than in a zombie one, since AI is real science.  Plus, the book should examine their cultural place in the world, and that needs to be believable.  I am pleased to say that this book gets it mostly right.  It’s enjoyable, scientifically minded, culturally thought-provoking, and examines a real life issue in the context of genre, which long-time readers of this blog know is something I highly enjoy.

The first thing that made me know this is a smart book is the source of the robots (called Von Neumanns after their creator).  A fundamentalist group in the American South decided that the humans left behind after Jesus’ Second Coming should have someone to help them through the Tribulation, so they invented humanoid robots to be ready to help.  Clearly, the Second Coming didn’t happen, and the fundamentalists ended up selling Von Neumanns, and the Von Neumanns wind up a part of the cultural backdrop, not to mention the porn industry.  As a character says to Amy:

There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you. (location 1944)

This is the most unique and engaging origin story for robots that I’ve seen, plus it makes sense and provides cultural commentary.  The Von Neumanns originated as a religious experiment, were swiped by the military and the porn industry, and became a part of everyday life.  It’s just an awesome origin story for the world that Amy is in.

The characters, including the robots, are three-dimensional.  Everyone has complex motivations and the main characters definitely grow and progress with time.  No one is presented as pure evil or good.

The plot is similarly complex.  There’s a lot going on in Amy’s world, and none of it is predictable.  What is the failsafe precisely and is it a good or a bad thing?  Is it a natural progression that it doesn’t work in Amy?  What about how Amy’s mother and grandmother reacted to the human world around them?  Did they see accurate shortcomings or were they just malfunctioning?  And what about how the various humans use the Von Neumann’s?  For instance, pedophiles acquire Von Neumanns and keep them young by starving them.  Is this a good, harmless thing since it protects human children or have robots evolved to be far more than just a machine?  The world is complex and full of tough questions, and thus is challenging and unpredictable, making for an engaging read.

What I most enjoyed though was how the whole book presents the question of nature versus nurture in a genre setting.  Are we our parents with no hope of improvement or escape?  Or do we have more say in the matter than just our genetics or “programming”?  Amy has a psychopathic grandmother and a mother who has made questionable choices.  Does this mean that Amy is evil or malfunctioning or even capable of being something different from the rest of her family?  All of these questions lead to some interesting stand-offs, one of which includes my favorite quote of the book:

An iteration isn’t a copy, Mother. It’s just the latest version. I’m your upgrade. That’s why I did what I did. Because I’m just better than you. (location 2581)

All that said, there were two things that kept this back from five stars for me.  First, some of the writing style choices Ashby uses drew me out of the story a bit. They are periodically highly artistic in a way that didn’t jibe with the story for me.  I get why she made those choices, but as a reader they aren’t ones that generally work for me.  Second, one thing that really drew me out of the story is the fact that the robot’s boobs don’t move.  This is mentioned at one point as being a way to tell if a woman is robot or not.  This drew me out of the world very hard while I laughed uproariously.  I’m sorry, but machines designed by men would simply not have hard plastic boobs.  Their boobs would bounce, dammit.  This would at least be in the top 10 list of robot requirements.  It simply wasn’t a realistic design choice, and it pulled me out of the story to such an extent that it lost the believability for a bit for me.

Overall, this is a creatively written and complex scifi artificial intelligence story that examines not just what makes us human but also individuality and uniqueness separate from parents and family.  Some of the more artistic writing choices and high levels of violence might not appeal to all audiences, but if you’re an AI or scifi lover with an interest in nature versus nurture and stories featuring strong female leads, you should definitely give this a go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

People flowing through tubes and standing in line.Summary:
In the near-future humanity is increasingly facing over-population and all its consequences.  In reaction to this, most world governments have established population laws and eugenics boards.  In this overly crowded, information overloaded, perpetually on the brink of war society exist Donald and Norman, healthy bachelors who must live as roommates due to the housing crisis.  Donald is a dilettante, an information specialist on reserve to be activated as a spy when needed for the US government.  Norman is a Muslim African-American working his way up the corporate ladder of the most important technology firm in the world–GT.  GT houses the world’s most brilliant computer named Shalmaneser.  The intertwining lives of these two oddly well-suited roommates gradually unfold amid digressions into the lives of those they come into contact with and information from the modern-day philosophies and advertizing.

Review:
What is most memorable and striking about this book is not so much the story, although that is fairly unique, but the way in which it is told.  Brunner does not simply tell the main storyline, he also immerses the reader into the world the characters live within.  To that end, the main storyline (continuity) is interspersed with chapters focusing in on minor characters (tracking with close-ups, essentially short stories), plunging the reader into the middle of the advertizing of the time (the happening world), and works of importance to the world (context).  The result is that, although it takes a bit of work to get into the book, in the end the world these characters exist in is much more vivid and clear in the reader’s mind, thus allowing her to more fully understand the characters.

Sometimes this method of writing is a bit difficult to read, of course.  For instance, one chapter takes place at a party, and Brunner simply streams all of the conversation together as you would hear it if you were at the party yourself.  You catch snippets of bits of different conversations taking place, but never an entire one all at once.  It’s the most immersive party scene I’ve ever read, but also took me an inordinate amount of time to get through.

It was also refreshing to have one of the main characters in a futuristic scifi book be a minority.  This in and of itself made Stand on Zanzibar a unique, interesting read, and I believe Brunner did a good job portraying both Norman’s struggles with still prevalent racism and presenting him as a well-rounded character.

The major themes of the book, beyond the incredibly meta presentation style, are the very real threat of the loss of privacy and the dehumanization of dependence upon artificial intelligence.

The dehumanizing affect of overpopulation is evident in the language employed by the characters early on in the book.

Not cities in the old sense of grouped buildings occupied by families, but swarming antheaps collapsing into ruin beneath the sledgehammer blows of riot, armed robbery and pure directionless vandalism. (page 52)

These are no longer human cities.  They are crawling ant-piles.  The vision of piles of swarming ants is simply not a pleasant one.  This concept of humanity as a pest is carried even further in a poem from one of the context chapters entitled “Citizen Bacillus,” which begins:

Take stock, citizen bacillus,
Now that there are so many billions of you,
Bleeding through your opened veins,
Into your bathtub, or into the Pacific
Of that by which they may remember you. (page 115)

Not only is this poem taking into account the increasingly suicidal tendencies of the human population in this future society (something that is seen in the animal kingdom when a population becomes overcrowded), but it also is blatantly calling humans a bacteria (bacillus).

The book repeatedly addresses through vignettes, samples of books of the time period, and the lives of the main characters that overpopulation leaves people without enough room to think and figure themselves out in.

True, you’re not a slave. You’re worse off than that by a long, long way. You’re a predatory beast shut up in a cage of which the bars aren’t fixed, solid objects you can gnaw at or in despair batter against with your head until you get punch-drunk and stop worrying. No, those bars are the competing members of your own species, at least as cunning as you on average, forever shifting around so you can’t pin them down, liable to get in your way without the least warning, disorienting your personal environment until you want to grab a gun or an axe and turn mucker. (page 77-8)

In the book “turning mucker” is when a person inexplicably loses their mind and attacks strangers near them.  This happens increasingly throughout the book.  Thus Brunner’s main point that humans are our own worst enemy is repeated throughout the book.

Added on top of this is the fact that artificial intelligence is outpacing humans.  The characters literally cannot keep up with the information overload.  They have nightmares about it.  They simultaneously depend on the computers and dread them.  When one goes awry, they hardly know how to continue on, but simply flounder around.  Chad Mulligan (one of my new favorite literary characters) sums it up eloquently:

What in God’s name is it worth to be human, if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine? (page 645)

Thus, Stand on Zanzibar through postulating an overpopulated future that is overly dependent on technology demonstrates the very real dangers humans pose to ourselves if we outpace either our own minds or our environment’s ability to house us.  It is a brilliant read for the meta-literature aspect alone, but the content is also challenging and thought-provoking.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

March 28, 2011 5 comments

Blue book coverSummary:
Billy Case used to be the best cowboy in the matrix–the digital world you plug yourself into.  But then he pissed off the wrong boss who had his neurons fried so he can’t jack in anymore.  Case has been biding his time waiting to die in Japan, until a mysterious woman named Molly shows up.  She’s tricked out with blades that emerge from under her fingernails and sunglasses built into her skull.  She says her boss has a job for Case and will fix his neurons, beginning the adventure of Case’s life.

Review:
This is a good example of how to effectively drop a reader into a completely unfamiliar world and explain nothing and yet have enough make sense for the reader to be invested in the outcome for the characters.  Gibson doesn’t explain much to the reader, and yet what doesn’t make sense eventually clicks into place if the reader is persistent enough in the reading.

The settings vary from a creatively imagined future Japan to a Rastafarian space station to what is essentially Miami in outer space.  They are all immediately engrossing and intriguing.  What led the world to develop this way in Gibson’s imagination?  That is never entirely clear, but that’s part of the fun.  After all, when is it ever entirely clear why the world works out the way it does?

By far the most interesting character is Molly.  Like a Whedon heroine, she kicks ass and takes no names.  She is not just brains or brawn; she is both.  Case pales abundantly in comparison to her, and he knows it.  Although they do hook up, he states that Molly could never really be anyone’s woman.  She is her own.  Molly’s life is incredibly more interesting than Case’s, and perhaps one of the more frustrating parts of the book is that we only get to see of her what Case gets to see.  The book is not about her; it is about Case’s experiences with her.  Yet that is also what makes the book intriguing.  She flits into and out of Case’s life and yet will linger forever in his memory as someone significant.

Of course, I would be remiss to review this classic piece of scifi without mentioning the impact its imaginings of the internet would have.  Obviously there is the matrix and plugging in concepts.  The idea of the internet as something that you participate in in a 3D manner.  The concept of AI as a computer rather than as a robot.  The list goes on and on.  If you’re a scifi fan and have not read this book, you really need to.  It is clear from page one what an impact Gibson has had on the genre.

The plot itself is convoluted and confusing.  I’m still not entirely sure I understand exactly what happened.  Yet I’m also not sure Case understands exactly what happened either.  This is one of the few times I’ve finished a book and instantly wanted to re-read it, hoping to understand it a bit better the second time around.  Yet such a convoluted plot is a bit distracting when there is so much else wonderful going on.  It holds the book back from being superb.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi is an interesting character study and immersion in a different world.  It would be interesting to anyone who enjoys that type of experience in their reading, but is also a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a scifi fanatic.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: SwapTree

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