by Toby Ball
I have been a fan of Toby Ball’s City since I picked up the first novel The Vaults on a whim at the library just because I liked the look of the cover. I followed The City to the second novel Scorch City where again the cover served as the inspiration for the review. Now we have the third book of the trilogy, Invisible Streets, and it is easily my favorite of the three.
In the thirty years that have passed over the course of the trilogy The City, the real main character of the series, has gone through many changes. In this novel the changes are more visible than ever as The City is in the process of remaking itself. Whole neighborhoods, the patchwork of cultures and flavors that make the city such a compelling quilt of a landscape, are being literally plowed under to make room for expressways and the behemoth of a building they all will lead to, a monolith at the center of The City that is on one hand the keystone of Progress that The City has always embodied, and on the other hand the Tombstone for what in a way makes The City unique. But this is, of course, The City and in The City there is no getting away from the corruption, the dark undercurrents, the power plays, and the complicated, paranoid, devious, intelligent, and interesting characters that inhabit it. The plot of Invisible Streets is a slow, slow burn. It doesn’t hurry, nor does it lag, it smolders. Furthermore, even at that measured pace the reader doesn’t have the sense of being ahead of the characters even with the advantage of seeing the story unfolding from multiple viewpoints. The characters, still the noir archetypes of the reporter, the detective, the fixer, the politician, are vibrant and well written. The reader is made to feel their confusion, their resolve, and at times their desperation and hope. The story itself comes to a conclusion that in itself is satisfying and makes sense when looking back over the course of the novel, and yet it doesn’t really end because The City keeps on going, different but still The City.
Thank you for The City Mr. Ball.
Daniel Suarez is one of those authors that in a few more years (or after one of his novels reaches the big screen) is going to be talked about as one of the top authors of contemporary science fiction. His latest book, Influx, while I wouldn’t say is his best novel (that honor in my mind goes to Daemon) it is probably his most cinematic.
The plot is based around a “what if” scenario. What if humanity was in reality far more technologically advanced than we thought we were? What if we had already perfected fusion power, created true nano tech, found the cure for cancer, created Artificial Intelligence, vastly expanded human longevity and physical and mental limitations, and made huge advances in materials science? What if the human race had all these things but they had all been hidden from us by an organization that hides them from us for our own good because the consequences of their discovery would do more harm than good?
When you put it like that it sounds noble. However, as the main character of the novel, Jon Grady, finds out it is far from anything of the sort. Jon is a thinker with a unique mind and discovers a technology that could represent one of the greatest technological shifts in human history; the Gravity Mirror, a device that can harness the most powerful force in the universe. That’s when the BTC, the Bureau of Technology Control, arrives and destroys his lab before any news of his accomplishment can spread.
You see, while the BTC may be protecting us from rampant change it has also been taking all of this revolutionary technology and hoarding it for itself, abducting those who created it and attempting to turn them to its own research agenda. Those scientists who decline their offer are imprisoned and tortured. Jon is one of these Resistors.
Influx is a roller coaster read with a wide-ranging scope and well thought out premise. A summer blockbuster waiting to happen. I think I killed the book in about two days because it is one of those page turners that you don’t want to put down. I only have a few quibbles. 1) While most of the book has dead-on pacing the finale seemed a little rushed, but that may only mean it will translate even better to the big screen (including the epilogue that I think could have tied up some loose ends with just a few more words . 2) One of the characters is improbably able to acquire and adapt the BTC’s advanced technology and provide it at the most opportune moment. 3) One simple answer invalidates every single disaster model the BTC produces: Space Colonization. The last scene is good and I like the feeling behind it, but all I need is an orbital elevator or space launch to make me feel better.
I haven’t, lately, been much into writing but since I have a few minutes I thought I would ramble a bit about some reading I’ve been doing lately. On a whim I picked up a paperback that has been on my bookshelf a while (an old friend already well read) and since have read through most of its series brethren. This book was Bolos Bk 1: Honor of the Regiment, a collection of short stories set in a universe created by Keith Laumer that features huge self-aware tanks known as Bolos.
It may be kind of a small thing but the very first time that I read these books the aspect that probably hooked me was the name for a Bolo’s main offensive weapon, a kind of plasma cannon that in the books measures its destructive output in megatons-per-second; the Hellbore. The picture above, a Mk XX Bolo (the first marks that were considered to be fully self-aware), features two Hellbore cannons as well as a suite of point defense and anti-personnel turrets (known as Infinite Repeaters), a bank of mortars, and magazine fed VLS missile cells behind an armored hull strong enough to resist the fire of virtually anything except for another Bolo’s Hellbore. Furthermore, this arsenal is powered by a pair of fusion reactors, and rolling on multiple, independent, track systems capable of cruising at 55mph and spiriting at 75 mph. It is a fourteen thousand ton juggernaut and later marks just get bigger, smarter, and more powerful.
Now, there is something to be said for the utility of tanks this size, especially in the current era of warfare where the tank seems to be falling by the wayside (the earliest Mk. I Bolo was essentially a late-model variant of the Abrams tank) but I always saw it in the context of where the Bolos fought, which is mostly not on Earth. No, Bolos are the human’s sword and shield on battlefields among the stars, against aliens who see us as prey, wish to take our resources, or stand in our way.
After all is said and done the very coolest thing about the Bolo universe is that most of the books are collections of short stories written by a whole host of sci-fi authors. While this does lead to a bit of confusion at times as the different authors sometimes are inconsistent in the capabilities of the Bolos themselves, it leads to many voices exploring different aspects of the universe and as a reader I love that.
And so begins the Ray Cruz era of Stephen Hunter’s excellent sniper thrillers.
Now, I don’t know if Stephen Hunter ever reads the reviews for his books, much less any reviews that I might have put together, but I thought this coincidence was pretty cool
“Ray Cruz really doesn’t have all that very much screen time in Dead Zero, but my read on him is that he is much more like Bob Lee’s father Earl Swagger. He is a powerful warrior who makes sacrifices for honor, duty and justice. In a sense, Earl and Ray are like Hercules and Hector to Bob Lee’s Achilles. Each of them are powerful warriors and heroes in their own right, but Earl and Ray do violence to serve a greater purpose, while Bob Lee is a killer because killing is what he is best at.”
In any case the torch has officially been passed to Ray Cruz. Bob Lee only appears in this novel in spirit.
Compared to some other Hunter novels Soft Target is fairly straightforward. In fact, to me it reads more like Mr. Hunter started out writing a character development story that put Ray in a dangerous situation to explore how the character would think and act. Lucky for us he got carried away and we ended up with a new book for the shelf.
There is some good action here. Everything revolves around a terrorist takeover of a mall at the height of the Christmas shopping season, a situation that personally fills me with dread because it is so plausible. While gunmen roam we get to meet Ray’s girlfriend, if briefly. We get to see his half sister Nikki in action as a hot-shot news reporter. We also get to meet State Police Commandant Douglas Obobo who takes a position of empathy, understanding and reconciliation in his negotiations with the gunmen who have taken over the mega-mall based on the Mall of America (Mr. Hunter, your politics are showing and I bet we get to see him in later books).
I liked Soft Target. I’ll admit it probably wasn’t the greatest book Hunter has ever written but they can’t all be the best. It was a good read though and I enjoyed it. If anything I guess it goes to show that those Swaggers do tend to be in the bad place at the right time. Or I guess the wrong time if you happen to be the bad guys. Dead bodies of people with bad intentions do tend to turn up fairly often in those circumstances.
I’m going to try something new. Maybe it will start a conversation. Maybe it will only happen once. Maybe it will alleviate some boredom…
The purpose of The State of Distraction is to throw out some things that may be of interest that may not get their own posts or that I may not get around to posting about.
We will see how it goes.
I just got done with Ghost in the Wires the autobiography / memoir of Kevin Mitnick. I liked it as much as The Art of Deception and The Art of Intrusion (both are must-reads on the 5GW bookshelf). I might get around to doing a more complete post about this one but in short I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in security or cyber-security.
I’m currently reading Storm Front by Jim Butcher. I’ve heard a lot about how good The Dresden Files are but never picked up the novels. So far I am enjoying it quite a bit and I will probably end up reading the series, though I probably won’t post reviews about them. Storm Front came out in 2000 after all so there isn’t much new there to talk about. My local library seems to have all of the books available and I already have Fool Moon waiting on deck. I might have to make it a point to go back and read up on series that I didn’t read because they were already a couple of books in before I noticed them. Suggestions would be great.
Of the wines I’ve been sampling lately a couple have stood out from the rest. One is the S.I.P. certified (a classification that goes beyond the organic tag) 2009 Carmel Road Pinot Noir from Monterey California. It has a nice, rich cherry / plum flavor and a beautiful black tea-like character. It also has very nice structure and balance and is worth looking for.
Another winner is a Spanish Rioja, the 2005 Marques de Murrieta Reserva. This is a wine at its peak right now showing a wonderful glowing garnet (going brickish) color, and a nice fruit / earth / wood balance with a delicious finish.
Most recently I’ve been drinking (rī)¹ and it is delicious. I have lately been kind of developing a taste for high-rye bourbon and straight rye whiskey. I guess something about that extra spicy character and extra touch of heat appeals to my palate. This one is exceptionally complex with layers of nuanced flavor. My preferred way to enjoy this one is in a Glencairn glass with no ice.
Who couldn’t be diverted by the Presidential primaries right now. It looks like it is coming down to Mit and Newt (though Mit has the upper hand I would say). As an independent moderate (if I can be called anything except cynical) I really should like Mit, but he seems like a weaksauce politician to me who will do anything to get a vote. Newt appeals to me (I hate to admit) because he seems more like a political animal rather than a politician. I acknowledge his strategic ability but I have doubts about his ability to lead. I guess if you show me a real leader with the ability to deliberately improve the position domestic and international position of my country beyond the next election’s time frame, then I’ll vote for that candidate. It’s pretty much that simple for me, I just don’t see that guy on the ticket.
by Toby Ball
Over the summer (The Summer of the Re-read 2010) I got an e-mail right here in the Red Herrings inbox offering me an advance copy Scorch City, a book I had really been looking forward to reading. However, because I was taking the summer off from blogging to re-read all those books I missed that email!
Dammit, I could have read this book months ago!
Ok, starting with the cover. If you remember, the reason I picked up the first book by Toby Ball, The Vaults, was the cover (if you can’t remember, here is the review so you can refresh yourself). That cover was cool, but this cover is not only cool but seems to embody all of the essential elements of the book as well. The cover shows the four main characters of the book, yes in spite of having only one person in the picture, four. In Novels of The City (you can still use that if you want) The City is a character all on its own, an industrial northern city that dominates the region and the towns around it. In this novel The City is joined by a utopian black shantytown on its outskirts known as the Uhuru Community. The cover, to my mind, shows that Community being crushed, sundered or plowed-under by The City. The third character on the cover could be any of the viewpoint characters of the novel but my bet is Lieutenant Piet Westermann, who is caught in the middle of racial, political and religious forces while he tries to solve the murder of an emaciated young prostitute. Throughout the book he is constantly pulled in various directions by forces and ideologies that he may or may not believe in, yet have the power to affect him deeply. He is a man alone in a crowd just as he is alone among the chaos of the shantytown on the cover yet moving with purpose. The fourth character on the cover may be just my imagination but it seems there is a shadowy hand reaching out from the lower right side of the picture toward the lone figure. There are spooky and shadowy forces at work in the novel but what seals it as symbolic in my mind as a shadowy hand and not an artifact of the terrain is that the light is coming from the figure’s left meaning the shadow is reaching out against the light.
All kinds of symbolism there. Who needs to review a book when all you have to do is talk about the cover!
The novel itself is just as well constructed and thoughtfully laid out as the cover is. The events of Scorch City occur fifteen years after those of The Vaults. It is now 1950. There has been another world war. The threat of Communism has taken a McCarthyesque turn in The City and has become the major issue in a contentious mayoral race while anti-communist vigilantes roam the streets. The setting is still very noir but the heat, the paranoia, the no-win feeling of helplessness, give it a desperate dystopian edge. Everything seems morally ambiguous and you are never quite sure who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, much less who is a murderer.
I enjoyed Scorch City just as much as The Vaults, but for different reasons. Ball has come a long way as a writer in a very short time. In The Vaults my only complaint was that while the settings were vivid and gripping, the character cast seemed too large and unfocused. In Scorch City the characters are much more clear, each serving a vital role and holding a piece of the story that is their own. The plot was just as compelling and even more tightly written and composed.
Keep them coming Mr. Ball, I want more City.
I finally can’t take it any more. I know that picture of the guy in the grape costume is funny and all but I’m tired of looking at it and I guess I should get back to blogging and make it go away.
So what happened?
Well, I took the summer off to enjoy “The Summer of the Re-Read 2011”. The latest books in several series that I have been following for years (including George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons) dropped over the summer and I decided to take a break from blogging in order to go back and re-read those series from the beginning. The idea was to get more free time in order to more quickly burn through those books…
And then there was Civ World…
As diversions, distractions and things to think about when you should be doing something else go (in other words a true Red Herring), the game / insanity known as Civ World reigns (or at least reigned) supreme. For those of you out there who didn’t get sucked in by it, you are lucky, and I also feel very, very sorry for you. Civ World is a Sid Meier Civilization game created for Facebook. Honestly though, at this time I have very mixed feelings about Civ World. When it started I had no idea what I was doing and there was little to no documentation to explain the tricks. On one hand this was great because it was an honest, actual, STRATEGY game. You had to figure them out and those that played the most efficiently ruled. I spent hours playing and thinking about better ways of playing. Hours that I should have been doing more important things (like reading those books and getting back to blogging). On the other hand it was buggy, frustrating, constantly having its rules and gameplay mechanics changed in maddening ways, and then they went and tried to monetize it, and ruined it forever.
I would have to say the very best thing about Civ World is the awesome group of players I was very fortunate enough to team up with. The Civ World Strategy Group came from all corners of the globe: China, Bangladesh, Norway, Sweden, British Columbia (some guy named Sean Meade in South Carolina) and Alabama. These were wonderful, funny and incredibly devious and utterly implacable people. We had the game wired. We knew all the best plays. We crushed all opposition without mercy or remorse. If you were in a game with us, You Were Going To Lose. It was that simple.
I miss Civ World.
The third thing that changed how much blogging I can do is that at work I was promoted. I am now the General Manager of three stores of purveyors of fine wines, spirits and beers. This is great! I am really happy in my new position and it challenges me in ways that managing a single store didn’t, and I still get to help customers find the great stuff they are looking for, my favorite part of my previous position. The downside, at least as far as blogging is concerned, is that I don’t have an office of my own anymore (though that should change eventually) and I have a lot more stuff to do so I generally work later.
New Job = Less Free Time.
Oh well, I get to try even more tasty wines, spirits and beers and I’m working on ways to create time to share the most tasty of them here. So it will all work out in the end with a little patience.
So, that’s the update. Blogging should increase in the near future. Thanks for reading!