On Goodreads and Books

I decided to join Goodreads in 2015, in part to see if I can get some good book recommendations from it, and in part because I really like to talk about books with folks so it seems like a network I'd like. That's my belated explanation why the Goodreads lists popped up in the sidebar recently.

Overall I'm still figuring out Goodreads. It is super-aggressive about wanting my Address Book which isn't going to happen. My rule is this: I'd be mad if a friend gave my email address to any social network so I shouldn't give out my friends email addresses. I think it's settled down a bit now, but the first few times I logged it that was like a "Here's the super-important next step!" and I definitely had to click "No" multiple times.

While rating a few books I discovered the latest Discworld novel, Raising Steam came out last November which I did not know. I'm reading that now so we can definitely put that down in the win column for Goodreads-as-recommendation-engine.

Anyway, as I said I didn't give up my contacts so if you're reading this and you have a Goodreads account ping me and I'll look you up. With only a tiny bit of judging on your reviews and ratings ;-)


On a whim last week I reread Pattern Recognition. I was about halfway through Cayce's story when I had an epiphany about Spook Country and Zero History. The thing about PR is that it genuinely is Cayce's story. It's chock full of other stuff about advertising and 9/11, and corporate espionage and the like, but that is all revealed through the lens of a major event of the protagonist's life. ZH has multiple protagonists but they are both involved in the core story of the novel.  In contrast, SC's story isn't really the protagonists's story - it is really the story of this offstage character who the reader sees briefly but never really identifies with. Hollis Henry is very passive and seems hardly changed from beginning to end. Milgrim has a significant change, but the nature of his events is that he passively watches the majority of the story and he pretty much drops out of the book just when the real story shows up.

The whole point of Spook Country is really that the movers and shakers of history are often hidden and not recorded. The main story is a shadowy fight between a couple of spooks and our viewpoint characters have no real agency in the matter. That makes it a very passive book. That's why Gibson can take many of the same characters in Zero History and I like the book so much better. Hollis Henry isn't just watching in mild bewilderment in ZH - she's doing things and make shit happen.

So there you have it. After two lengthy book reviews where I sort of hemmed and hawwed my way around what the difference was I can boil it down to that: Spook Country isn't about the protagonists and they don't really undergo a transformation.

Zero History

William's Gibson's new book Zero History is out on iBooks and I assume the usual assortment of dead trees. I grabbed it, read a few pages and realized that it was starting off with characters from Spook Country and I didn't really remember them. Le sigh. So I grabbed my copy (SC predated my Kindle so I have a hardback version) and reread it first. I've just gone back and read my review of that and I have to say I liked it more on the reread. Perhaps I'm mellower, perhaps my expectations were in line so I wasn't disappointed, most likely a combination of both. But anyway, let's talk about Zero History.

The first paragraph dealt with the first point in that SC had some loose connections to Pattern Recognition but ZH is much more closely tied to SC. I think you could enjoy SC cold (and indeed, not expecting either cyberpunk would be a benefit) but you'd have to have passing familiarity with SC to enjoy ZH. I liked what Gibson did with the characters in ZH and I'd go so far as to say it like SC better having read the sequel.

I still am not wild about Gibson as mundane SF as I talked about before. There's quite a lot of stuff in here about smartphones and the usage for corporate espionage, as well as some weird fetishization of cellular modems and discussion of how to get on Twitter while in the Chunnel. That still reads as oddly as the virtual reality stuff in SC did. As I wrote this having just reread my Spook Country review I realize that the action moved back to Europe and that Zero History takes place largely in London or Paris. I think that helps because it lets Gibson do alienation and truthfully writing about alienation one of the things that Gibson does fantastically well. The parts that have a specific time frame are still awkward overall (I'm not sure it's specifically set in a time, but SC was in 2006, so I'd put this in 2008 or so? Plus the fictional iPhone analog feels about 2008-2009-ish.) It's not terrible but it still has that weird vibe of somebody trying to "do" Gibson's style without actually pulling it off that I found so off-putting in SC. There's less of it in ZH so it's less distracting but it's still present.

I can't write a whole lot about the plot of the book without spoilers of course. There's one obvious "I really should have seen that coming, but I didn't" that filled me with delight and will reward long time readers. I wrote in the last review about I was tired of Gibson writing about 9/11 and this book moves on (thank goodness). It's a post 9/11 book in the sense that the culture reflects it, but not in the sense that 9/11 themes are involved in the book.

This is the part where I should wrap up. Well look if you've read Gibson's other works you're likely to pick up Zero History just on strength of knowing it exists and I don't think you'll be disappointed. If you don't remember a ton about Hollis Henry or Milgrim I'd advise you to reread Spook Country first (or if you didn't read SC before then definitely tackle it before ZH). It's not a place for a new Gibson reader to get on board. It's not his best work I don't think (that's actually a tough call. Something from the Idoru line maybe?), nor is it even the best of his recent "mundane" works (that would still be Pattern Recognition in my opinion). I definitely liked Zero History better than Spook Country on either read-through. The MacGuffin plot that kickstarts the real story isn't as wince-inducingly "ripped from Wired magazine" as SC's was and in fact is much closer to PR's story elements. I liked the book and it probably leaves more looking forward to his next work than his last one did. That's seems sort of faint praise-y, but that's not my intent. I enjoyed reading Zero History and if you got any value of of Spook Country then I think you would enjoy it as well.

Inside Straight

During my recent spate of travel I bought Inside Straight which is a sort of relaunch of the Wild Cards universe. However, I bought it in hardcover (since it's not out in paperback yet) and promptly decided on every plane flight to carry a smaller, lighter paperback or short fiction magazine instead. So once I settled back into home I decided to read it. I was glad to see that Wild Cards had relaunched. I was introduced to Wild Cards in college when I was running a superheroes role-playing game that turned out to have some parallel themes. (And bringing it full circle, Wild Cards evolved from a role-playing game originally!) It's a shared universe setting where a virus is unleashed on Earth that kills 90 out of 100 infected, horribly deforms another 9, and gives that lucky 100th person superpowers. Most of the books were short story collections (later there were a few novels) and they varied over time in terms of how tightly- linked a single's volumes stories were. This new book is still short stories written by a variety of authors, but it organizes into a single narrative thread more closely than many of the original volumes. (In my memory anyway. It's been years since the last time I reread these books.) If you've read and enjoyed the previous WC books you should pick up Inside Straight no doubt. I guess it's a tougher question if you aren't familiar with the universe, but that's a little difficult for me to address since it isn't my perspective. I can see how this was a difficult feat for the authors: how to revitalize a series with over a dozen books and make it accessible to new readers and still pleasing to the hardcore fans. Here's my suspicion: it's an impossible job but the authors made a really good attempt. I think it's tilted slightly in favor of the old fans but it's close. Wild Cards was always a series that played realistically, given the one big fantastic premise. History diverged over time from our history (The Wild Card virus is released right after WWII.), but very few people became crimefighters or donned spandex costumes or whatever. The new series continues that trend, the opening premise is a new reality show called American Hero that pits "Aces" against one another. There are some ties back to the previous stories - the hostess and judges of American Hero are all characters from previous stories, and there are political events afoot that tie to previous stories. This part was done well I think, the tie-ins are present but not mystifying to a new reader. As the plot begins to develop further it ties more to previous events in the series, and to be honest it ties to a storyline I liked less than most the series offered. That's where I think it would stumble the worst for a new reader, I was having a bit of trouble keeping up with all of the "Oh yeah, that's right. These guys did that back in the past, which now means this has happened now." I'm not convinced the authors provided all of the needed backstory for a few items, I could see some of the plot elements being a bit confusing to a total series newbie. Also I have to say that the current crop of powers just aren't as interesting. The old stories were remarkable for how varied the characters were - you had pimps using tantric sex for magic, a person who slept most of his life in a chrysalis and woke up every time with a drastically different power (or hideous mutation), or a person who had literally died and returned from the death and could project that experience onto others until they died. The new characters have a few that are intriguing or unusual, but in general it's all a lot more "vanilla" superpowers in this outing. Still I think that was probably true of the early Wild Card volumes and that the most interesting characters evolved over time. This is the first volume of three books that Tor contracted for and I'd presume the long-term goal is to establish an open-ended series. There's nothing wrong with the new characters per se, they just seem a little bland in comparison - even if the comparison of a 12 volume series to the single volume "relaunch" is a bit unfair. All in all, I liked Inside Straight and I'm looking forwards to the next volumes. If you haven't read any Wild Cards before I don't know that this is the best embarking point, but I don't think the early books are still in print so it may be your only choice. I think if you enjoy superhero books and especially if the concept of superhereos in an otherwise realistic setting appeals to you that you should probably check out Inside Straight.
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Players Handbook

I can't decide if I think reviewing the Players Handbook is ridiculous or not. On the one hand, it's a book, and I read it. On the other hand, I've already nattered on about D&D recently and it's not like anyone reads the PHB as a work of literature. So maybe I'll cheat a little a bit and do a "review" but mix in a little 4th edition discussion. We'll see what happens. (Editing? We don't need no steekin' editing!) There's an obvious elephant in the 4th edition D&D room and oddly enough that's World of Warcraft. I guess this is some sort of circle of life thing where you'd have to expect that WoW only exists because my generation grew up with D&D and now it's time to for WoW to return the favor. The first time you see the influence in the PHB is when they start talking about character "roles". They've defined four: defender (cue Crow T. Robot saying "It's not a tank."), striker, controller, and leader. They explicitly describe how each role works in combat and it's a tag on each class - fighters are defenders, clerics are leaders and so forth. In fact they explicitly set out the "classic party" with a fighter (defender), cleric (leader), rogue (striker), and wizard (controller). I think this change is positive really. Putting this explicit focus up front means it's easy to see how each class works and you can see where it helps both a player understand their role and helped the designers really reinterpret each class and "focus the beam" as it were. The next thing a reader will notice is all of the powers. Everyone has a big stack of powers, no matter their class. Fighters have special attacks they use instead of the "basic melee" attack. Rogues have funky moves where they can move during the attack, or trip their target or force them to move or whatever. Wizards can cast a Magic Missile every round of combat if they want. The basic melee attack is pretty much something that somebody only does if it's because they were doing something else that includes a basic attack. Everything is broken up into "At-Will" powers (which can be used every round), "Encounter" powers (usable once per fight), and "Daily" powers (once per day, naturally). Somewhere around here a WoW player will envision a toolbar with powers and recharge timers on it. Again I think this is a great addition. Sure they didn't even bother to file the serial numbers off the WoW implementation, but that's OK. It cleans up so much stuff, it's worth it. Paladins Lay On Hands? That's a power. Wizard casting Acid Arrow? (Melf apparently got demoted. Poor out some CLW potion for the homies!) That's another power. Cleric's Turn Undead? Yep, a power. It makes everything in D&D work in one framework for really the first time ever. But the fact that all of these Powers now have the same structure means one finely honed game mechanic lets everyone do their stuff. Paladins still play completely different from Wizards, but it's not because they have unique game mechanics it's because they have different stats and powers. This means it's possible to grab a character sheet, skim it quickly and nod. You're ready to go and play the game. It doesn't require memorizing your class description so you know how all of your special exceptions work. You still have exceptions but they are all listed as Powers (well, or as Feats, but still. It's standardized.) So, I really like the new rules. From that perspective the PHB is a great success. It' not necessarily that much of a gripping read, but I've read much dryer and less readable gaming rulebooks. I don't think I'd recommend reading the whole thing straight through unless you plan on playing, but it's organized more as a reference than a linear read. I haven't actually played yet with the PHB (but we are Thursday! Huzzah!), but I have done some character creation/review work with it and it seems well laid out. I've already begun to be able to say "OK, for that we'll need to look at the XP chart, which is over here (flip to roughly the right spot)." If you're curious about 4e, you might find enough of interest in the PHB to own a copy. If you're playing or even thinking of playing it's definitely worth acquiring. There's a nice "gift set" you can get if you want the DMG and Monster Manual as well which comes with all three hardovers in a slipcover case.
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