Been a while, but I do have some books to report on:
First up: Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of John Whiteside Parsons
by George Pendle. As you might guess this is an autobiography of one of the more interesting characters of early space exploration. John "Jack" Parsons was the scion of a wealthy family who fell on hard times during the Depression. Parsons read a lot of early sci-fi and got excited about the idea of space exploration and rockets. Unable to afford collage, he started working for companies producing explosives for mining/construction and on the weekends would make different sorts of chemical rockets. Although not formally schooled in chemistry, he had a very nimble mind and probably knew more about explosive chemicals than anyone at CalTech, where he managed to cobble together a small rocketry research program (at the time, rockets were considered nothing more than toys).
When WWII broke out, he created a rocket fuel formula to help large planes take off on short runways. These rocket boosters were called JATO units (Jet Assisted Take-Off) -- note that they called them jets not rockets because jets were cool and rockets were dumb. He formed a company to produce the JATO units called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and you probably know it toady as an integral part of NASA. Those boosters he produced in WWII became the template for solid fuel rockets such as the boosters for the Space Shuttle.
All of this is interesting enough but when you add in the fact that he got inspired by Alistair Crowley and set up an OTO temple in his house...well, you'd expect more but honestly there aren't a lot of records and most interviews are with people who were at the fringes of his crowd. You want to hear about the rituals and the orgies and there's some of that, but there's a lot of stuff that's still quite opaque about the man and what he was doing.
The general picture that you get from the book is that Jack Parsons was kind of a real life, low-budget Tony Stark, a bit of an asshole genius. It's not clear if more funding or additional education would've helped, he clearly seemed to be the kind of person with his head in the clouds and a burning desire to achieve his goals. It's too bad there's not more detail about his life, although I suspect frustration would factor large in it.
It's a niche subject so I'm not recommending it to you unless you've got a real interest in this kind of stuff.
So it's back to fiction with: Edges
by Linda Nagata. Ms. Nagata is an author from Australia who wrote a series of transhuman sci-fi. This is the start of a new series set in that universe. I don't usually like dealing with coming into the middle, but this is a pretty good starting point and I never felt too lost so that's a point in it's favor.
The basic premise is that transhuman society has spread throughout the galaxy. However, around the fringes, a fleet of ancient war machines search out technically advanced civilizations and then crushes them. Near a weird machine/neutron star called Deception Well, humans have found a refuge from the machines. Towards the interior of human space, the oldest settlements eventually created Dyson spheres and other high-tech stellar engineering. But they've got silent and from Deception Well people can see those megastructures are breaking up and they're not sure why. It doesn't seem to be the war machine's fault but there's no way they can reach it.
Until Urban, a human sent out from Deception Well as part of a team trying to beat the war machines returns in control of one of the warships. He offers his old lover and a few others from Deception Well a chance to upload to his ship and come with him to go exploring into the core to find out what happened.
They almost immediately run into transhuman trouble.
I enjoyed the heck out of this book. The concept of an "inverted frontier" is fun and the book really stares down the barrel of the various ramifications that transhuman technologies would produce. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series. Recommended, especially for fans of Ian Banks and the like.
Let's roll back to a bit of fantasy. The Grand Dark
by Richard Kadrey is set in a not-quite-steampunk world trying to recover from a devastating war, in particular, we focus on the city of Lower Proszawa. Berlin during the Weimar Republic is the obvious analog and the german words for streets and slang really helps orient you. Largo is, for now, a bicycle messenger with a famous theatrical girlfriend and just a *teensy* morphine hobby. One day, the chief messenger at the company is hauled away by the secret police and Largo gets a promotion, thanks in large part to his photographic memory of the city and its layout. From high-class mansions to abandoned factories, Largo delivers packages and takes signatures and then comes back to the office to be quizzed about the day by his boss Herr Branca.
Largo's deliveries get more and more strange and as rumors of war start to swirl, Largo is going to have to wise up about who he is and what he's doing.
Another really solid book. I enjoyed the world-building (and learned a bit of German too). Largo is head-smackingly naive but once he starts to realize what's going on, well, he's still out of his depth but he knows he has to do something. Very much a "so now I'm an adult, now what?" kind of journey for him. I would say this is a slightly better fantasy LeCarr than the Amberlough series touted itself as (though that series really had a different idea in mind vs. it's ad copy). A fun read.
Back to space with The Outside
by Ada Hoffmann. When humans hit the Singularity, the Singularity decided that humans just couldn't be trusted with advanced science and technology so...they took it over. Now AI Gods control and watch over human development. They allow some level of experimentation but generally keep them firmly sandboxed. Yasira Shien is a scientist working on an interesting new piece of science and the AIs are letting her have a go at it, but the new tech promptly unravels the space laboratory she's working on and the Gods scoop her up. Branded a heretic and a murderer, the Gods are giving her a shot at redeeming herself by tracking down her mentor, a woman who has big plans to upend the gods and reality itself.
A fun book that explores a theme I think is more likely in a transhuman future -- AIs who simply keep humans like...well, not like pets exactly, but more like toddlers who keep grabbing for things they shouldn't. Banks's Culture novels sometimes touch on this a bit, but it's a theme that's front and center here and I kinda like it.
I had one minor niggle. Dr. Shein and her mentor are both described as having autism (it's suggested that this, in part, explains their scientific insights). I realize that I don't think I've read any book, fiction book certainly, that has an autistic character at its center and really tries to get into their head. My issue is that....Shien doesn't seem terribly different from a lot of other protagonists. If she's freaking out about being abducted by AI gods and dragooned into a galaxy-wide hunt for a reality bending mad scientist -- that's an emotional crisis most people would have. I didn't feel like her autism was something that came through on the page. If it's deliberate, if it's a "autistic people are like everyone else", that's fine, but it's not like she's being ostracized because she's autistic, she's treated as a slightly eccentric genius and that's it, which seems like it really undercuts whatever sort of message they wanted to go with here. Again, I can't recall a central autistic character in a book I've read in the past few years so perhaps I'm completely missing the point, but I don't feel like I got a sense of how her autism shapes her compared to any neurotypical character.
Still, it's a pretty good book and I do recommend it.
Finally, a new Max Gladstone book. I've been eagerly devouring Max Gladstone's Craft series books since the first one. A magic-fantasy take on modern finance that is *way* better than that description sounds. His latest book, however, is a stand alone sci-fi novel called The Empress of Forever
. Here we have Vivian Liao -- entrepreneurial wunderkind whose made and lost fortunes in a near-future, ecologically failing Earth. But now the Feds are closing in, ready to break her. So Viv hatches a last-ditch plan to sneak in to an MIT server farm and...create a benign Skynet? But in the process a glowing green woman suddenly appears, grabs her, and spirits her away to the far future.
With a little help, Viv escapes her prison and learns that here in the future there's The Cloud -- a digital mapping of...everything. And the Empress (the green woman) basically rules and owns it. If Viv wants to get home, she has to beat the Empress. She also has to fend off the Mirrorfaith, techno-priests who try to study the Empress to learn her secrets, the Pride, war-toys of the Empress that she's discarded, and the Bleed, an alien species who show up when a civilization reaches a certain level of sophistication and....eat everything. To prevent the Bleed, the Empress herself usually does this stunt.
So...Viv gets the party together, a god-like space pirate, a techno-monk, a barbarian pilot, and a sentient blob of grey goo. Together they go on adventures.
Friends, Max Gladstone is a fantastic writer and this book is flat-out amazing. Wonderful world-building and grand vistas, you can imagine how lush the movie would be. Beyond that, the thing that really characterizes Gladstone's books is the human, emotional core a the center and how it addresses the numerous challenges we face here in the real world and how we attack those problems.
Highly recommended, definitely check it out.
OK, I think that covers it. Happy reading everyone.