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Book Review: Ticker by Lisa Mantchev

Book Review: Ticker by Lisa MantchevSummary:
Penny Farthing, member of the wealthy elite, is full of tons of energy she mostly uses to ride her motorized high wheel bicycle and collect robotic butterflies.  Unfortunately, her clockwork heart doesn’t always entirely keep up with her. Plus she has to wind it.  Much more troubling to her, though, is the fact that the creator of her clockwork heart, Calvin Warwick, is now on trial for murdering dozens of people he abducted from the street to practice on before giving her her new heart.  When there is an explosion at her family’s factory and Warwick escapes prison immediately after being found guilty of murder (oh, and her parents disappear), Penny and her twin brother and two of their closest friends embark on a journey of intrigue to bring her parents home and Warwick to justice.

Review:
I rarely am actually interested in anything in the Kindle First email (a once-monthly email that informs Kindle owners as to four books they can access ahead of publication for free).  I am also not often into most steampunk books.  It’s an idea I love, but I often find isn’t executed as well as it should be.  When this one popped up, though, I was intrigued for its transhumanist explorations.  The book definitely explores the concept of transhumanism via the steampunk idea of augmentation, but it mostly is a story about a young girl’s first love and a bit of a mystery/thriller search for a murderer.

The basic premise that a teenager finds out that the medical device that saved her life was the result of the brutal torture and murder of dozens of people is awesome.  This is a more extreme version of the types of realizations that young adults often have.  (For instance, I will never forget the first time I realized that sometimes scientists must experiment on innocent animals in the pursuit of cures and the ethical quandary that resulted for me).  It works quite well because it is set in an alternate universe.  This allows the reader to have some distance to view the ethical issue through but the alternate universe is still similar enough to our own that it is relatable.  Penny is always firmly against any unwilling human experimentation (as she should be) but she is left wondering how much responsibility and guilt she should feel for the tortures and murders when she herself was indirectly responsible.  She is so grateful to be not only alive but able to function better than she could before.  But she is also traumatized at the thought of how she got there.  This is the book’s real strength, and I am glad it is out there for the YA audience to read.  That said, there are other elements of the book that just don’t quite work for me.

First, the level of steampunk is sometimes a bit ridiculous and isn’t explained well enough.  For instance, the world seems to have only robotic butterflies and horses.  Why is that?  For that matter, it’s deeply confusing to me why this culture would develop a robotic horse and carriage, particularly when they also have motorized bicycles (I won’t call them motorcycles, because they definitely are not nearly so eloquent nor sexy as motorcycles).  It’s not a far leap to car from there.  The reasons behind the steampunk features are simply never explored.  They just are.  This may be fine to some readers, but I found it dissatisfying.  I particularly really needed to know why the animals are robots.

Second, the society Penny lives in is clearly meant to be a parallel to the British Empire in its heyday.  It is highly stratified, classist, regal, and feels oppressive (except for Penny and her family of course *eye-roll*).  I have no problem with a book containing this type of society but it is not only never questioned it seems to be held up as an excellent way of living.  It’s great that the military just jumps right on in and solves everyone’s problems (including abducting civilians up to their sky fort).  It’s oh so wonderful that Penny’s family has all this wealth.  It’s tragic for Penny’s family that they lose some product in the factory explosion but the workers and their injuries and lives are barely touched upon.  It ends up feeling like whenever any of the elite people in the book (and most of the main and secondary characters are elite, with the exception of one young girl who is saved from her poor destitute life by the military) discusses anything bad about being the lower class, they do so in a “See, I’m a good person because I care about them” tone but not out of any sincerity.  None of them have any desire to actually change or fix anything.  Indeed, one of the main characters excitedly jumps right in when they are asked to become an honorary member of the military.  The book has the tone that the only thing wrong with this alternate universe is the fact that Warwick is a very bad man who experiments on people he snatched from the street.  Everything else is fine!  When it clearly is not.

Finally, I just don’t particularly care for the main character, Penny Farthing.  First there’s her name, which is exactly the same as the name of the style of bicycle she rides (only motorized) (info on the penny farthing).  That’s just a bit too cutesy for me.  Second, she is a person who is oblivious to her privilege of wealth and access to medical care, even when it is smacking her in the face.  She never learns, changes, or grows (beyond falling in love).  She briefly realizes “hey, maybe things have been rough on my twin brother too,” but she glosses over that quite quickly.  She also eats incessantly in a way that reminds me very much of The Gilmore Girls (here is a great article that talks about why this trope is annoying as hell).  Basically, she eats whatever she wants, whenever she wants, primarily junk food, and everyone finds it “oh so adorable” that she is constantly hungry.  Oh that Penny Farthing!  And she does this all while staying the classic western media ideal of what is attractive!  Without working out! So basically she never does that annoying thing women can sometimes do which is to eat a salad and never eat a burger because she’s watching her figure (which men find annoying) but she also is definitely not fat (which men also find annoying).  She is the best of both worlds.  In Penny’s case, this mystery is explained as the fact that she needs to eat to keep her clockwork heart going.  The “science” of that drives me absolutely batty, by the way.  My best guess is that the author was possibly going for the idea of how some people, such as people with diabetes, need to eat at evenly spaced times to keep their blood sugar even.  However, no one would tell a person with diabetes to eat primarily sugary baked goods at those intervals, which is what Penny mostly eats.  Also, diabetes does not equal heart disease so…..the “science” of this makes very little sense.  It reads as an excuse to use the Gilmore Girls junk food trope.  Finally, it really bothers me that she collects the robotic butterflies.  Yes, I know people do this in the real world with real butterflies, but it has always struck me as cruel, and I think it says a lot about her character that she seems so cool with trapping what in her world are perceived of as essentially living creatures for her own amusement and collection.

All of that said, the plot and mystery of Warwick, his escape, and finding Penny’s parents is fast-paced and unpredictable without ever verging into the land of plots that make no sense.  It’s an interesting world with an engaging plot built around a cool premise.  Where it is weak is primarily in the elements that were either not sufficiently well thought-out, explored, or explained, such as the robotic animals, the functioning of Penny’s heart, etc…

Overall, this has an interesting premise and an engaging plot.  It unfortunately doesn’t explore the workings of the society or the steampunk it has created enough, and the main character can be a bit annoying and hard to root for at times.  However, those who love steampunk with a dash of mystery and romance will likely enjoy adding it to their repertoire, provided they are ok with the issues outlined above.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon Kindle First (Free copy of the book provided by Amazon to those with kindles who request it.  Requesters are under no obligation to provide a review).

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Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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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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