Monday, April 30, 2018

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2.5), by Patrick Rothfuss

book cover You might wonder what a fractional number in a book series means. For some authors, it means books that are part of the universe, but not of the story, inbetween events that are defined maybe just chronologically. For others, it's even less, short stories that bring completion to their vision, different in scope, style and/or characters from the main books that maybe made you find and read them.

Unfortunately, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is part of the latter category. It is a short story about a few days in the life of Auri, the autistic-like little girl that Kvothe meets with occasionally on rooftops. Patrick Rothfuss even tells about how he came to write the story and fear people will not like it: it has no real narrative structure, it shows only boring things, like eight pages of someone making soap, it has only one character and, I assume, people will get angry for wanting more of Kvothe storytelling and getting dumb little Auri instead. And he was right. I am actually a little bit pissed.

The Wise Man's Fear was written 7 years ago! If you want to do a bit of experimentation, make an effort to name it such: "A silly little story that happens to take place in the Kingkiller universe" or "The Kingkiller Chronicle #2.001" or something like that. Instead he brings hope to readers that it's some sort of companion book, a proper bridge between the second book and the upcoming one, then smashes it with his prissy pen.

I was wondering if to rate it really low, just so I vent a bit of the frustration, but instead I settled on calling it submediocre. It's well written, but that's it. It's a literary masturbation that I recommend to only the fiercest fans of Rothfuss.

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2), by Patrick Rothfuss

book cover As I was saying in the review of the first book in the series, The Wise Man's Fear just continues the story began in The Name of the Wind and also ends randomly. Kvothe becomes even stronger, learns more things, is deflowered by the magical equivalent of Aphrodite and starts killing people like a maniac, yet his trials are still minor compared to his powerful abilities. As in the first book, most of his serious problems stem not from him searching for the most powerful and cruel immortals on the face of the planet, but from how much money he has in his pocket. This gets a little tiresome, but in this book we get a lot more, as Kvothe visits other places, learns to fight and adapts to strange customs in foreign lands.

There are two parts of the story that are just skipped over. One moment our hero is preparing for a long journey, with detailed descriptions of the equipment he caries, the next he is at his destination sans equipment, due to pirates and other dire circumstances that are skipped in a few paragraphs. Later on it happened again. Somehow, Patrick Rothfuss seems a little frustrated with his own speed of writing the story he has in his head. OK, that was a bit cheap, but also a bit deserved while we are waiting for the next volume.

Other than that, it was hard for me to consider this a book. It is a mere part of a longer book that would have been too unwieldy to read if printed in a single volume. It starts where the other ended and it ended with no real finality. While there is a geographical distinction between the first book and this one, it is a minor one. I still suspect that Rothfuss was planning something else with the story than what it turned out to become. Will the continuation of the story try to turn meta on storytelling, or will it continue just like a chronicle? Will the story ever reach the point when it is told or not? Frustrating questions that only a yet unpublished third volume will be able to start answering.

The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1), by Patrick Rothfuss

book cover The Kingkiller Chronicle series seems to be, for once, an actual chronicle. In an inn in the middle of nowhere a guy actually called Chronicler comes and starts writing the stories told by the innkeeper, in reality a famous hero that just wants to be left alone. The whole thing feels like it was meant as a study in storytelling, as we read the telling of a story in which many times people tell other stories and concerns a character raised as a travelling actor.

More than that, the "shape" of the plot is a standard hero journey: young orphan boy with extraordinary abilities battles various types of evil as he grows into a popular hero. He is so talented, in fact, that he feels a bit of a Marty Stu when almost everything he encounters is extraordinary and within his ability to control or at least get out of jams with his legend intact. There are hints, though, that as it is told, the story will become more tragic. Also, as told by a talented storyteller, a reader might be circumspect of all the details in it; while improbable, it might all be revealed as a great joke by the end.

So, is Patrick Rothfuss just writing a nice bedtime story where the hero is all smart and strong and filled with magic, something to spread like wildfire and be sung in all taverns, making him a ton of money, or is it something more to it, like trying to teach the reader something that is impossible to teach? That is for the reader to decide.

I read the book really fast for its size, which shows my own preference for it, and it reads like a kind of Harry Potter in Westeros. Unfortunately, the pace of writing is borrowed from George R. R. Martin, rather than J.K. Rowling and people are still waiting for the third book in the series, more than 10 years since the writing of this one. One might want to wait until the entire story is told, as the second book in the series is a simple continuation of the first. The Name of the Wind just ends at a random moment in the story while The Wise Man's Fear continues the telling and also ends randomly. A lot of people that fell in love with the story are now frustrated with the lack of progress in writing it it. After all, Kvothe is telling it to Chronicler in three days in an inn, written by shorthand in ink, while Rothfuss has used computers for a decade already.

Bottom line: this is a well written series of rather large books. While the character feels a bit OP, the plot meanders through many interesting concepts and situations. I still have the strong suspicion that Patrick Rothfuss started writing this as a study of storytelling - an art that precedes writing and blends together artistry of composition and its declamation - but somehow ended up stuck with a character that is young, powerful, good looking and can't carry him forward. It is worth noting that while Rothfuss only wrote two major books in the series, he also wrote intermediate stories and other writers also contributed to the Kingkiller universe.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Palimpsest, by Charles Stross

I liked the French book cover more This is how I love my sci-fi: short and to the point. We still get the Charlie Stross signature nice techie guy who falls for girls in sci-fi settings, but since this is a novella, Palimpsest focuses almost entirely on the catch, the "what if" kernel of the story. And that is another exploration of what time travel would lead to, in this case an out of time organization called the Stasis that exists solely to protect Earth from inevitable extinction by reseeding it with humanity whenever it happens, thus creating a sort of stagnating but stable civilizational time flow that last for trillions of years until the heat death of the universe.

But I liked the little details a lot. As the title suggests, once you can time travel, the timelines can be infinitely rewritten, leading to all kinds of (maybe literally all) possibilities. In order to join Stasis you first need to kill your grandfather and in order to graduate you need to kill yourself in another timeline! Mad and fun ideas are in abundance in the book and I particularly enjoyed that it presented them one after another and then the story ended. No need to take it further to some sort of personal conclusion for the main character. It is pure fantasy and then it ends. Love that!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Singularity Sky (Eschaton #1), by Charles Stross

book cover Charles Stross has a penchant for thinking big and then bringing that to the level of the average reader by the aid of pulp. That is why he is often discussing philosophical questions like what the world will be after millennia and what the consequences of time travel are or what if the Old Gods and magic were actually real in the context of a particularly handy tech guy who falls very easily in love and then spends the rest of the book saving the world and serving the one he loves. He is also an optimist who thinks people with all the information and power they could have will ultimately do the right thing with it.

While I love his positivism and the grandiose hard sci-fi approach, the pulp thing is a bit of a hit and miss with me. In the case of Singularity Sky, I think the pulp messed up something that could have been a very powerful metaphor of the state of humanity in the present day (and in any past day, too). But that doesn't mean the book is not good - I enjoyed reading it - but it doesn't even come close to another "singularity" book: Accelerando. I understand it's not fair to hold every single thing Stross wrote in the balance with what is probably his best work, but that's what I am doing, because I loved that one and I was meh about this one.

The story presents a subset of human starfaring civilization which chose to live in a similar way to the old Russia tzarist regime. Communication, technology and free speech and thought are strongly regulated and kept to the level of the 18th century in most cases. So what happens when one day phones drop from the sky that open two way communication with entities that could fulfill every desire you never knew you had? It is a very interesting metaphor to the way humans have lived throughout their history and how it is their choice and their addiction to monkey power games that keeps them in the dark ages. Also touches (very little) on why people would choose to live that way and how other might respect or disregard their right for that choice.

However, the main story is terminally fragmented by less interesting substories. Two spies, one in the service of the UN and the other helping the mysterious Herman, just have to fall for one another and waste precious pages. Feudal and imperial authorities have to spend pointless time to prepare a full military defense of their colony without even understanding who they were going to fight. Critics, a non-human-anymore species that starts the book as "criticizing" and the rest of it appears randomly and doing nothing interesting, except never getting the talking part right and sounding like Yoda. The list continues.

Bottom line: a fun read, but nothing more. A wasted opportunity for something a lot bigger. The author explains on his blog how the book came to be and why he won't continue the Eschaton series, which is probably for the best anyway.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Javascript ES6 way to update object properties: Object.assign

How many times did you find some code that looked like this:
// previous code
let someValue1 = 'something';
let someValue2 = 'something else';
let someValue3 = 'something blue';
let someValue4 = 'something entirely different and original';
// our code
const parentObject=new ParentObject();
and you really wanted to make it look nicer? Well now you can! Introducing the ECMAScript 6 Object.assign method.

And thanks to some other features of ES6, we can write the same code like this:
// our code
const parentObject=new ParentObject();
Object.assign(parentObject.childObject,{someValue1, someValue2, someValue3, someValue4});

Note that { someVariable } is equivalent to the ES5 { someVariable: someVariable } notation.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

book cover Funny how these things turn out. After finishing Proxima, by Stephen Baxter, which was also about humans colonizing the planet of a nearby star, but in the end was very little about the planet itself, I've stumbled upon Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, which does pretty much the same. I don't want to spoil things, but really, just a small percentage of the book is even related to the planet they briefly called Aurora.

Let's get one thing out of the way, though. Aurora is way better than Proxima ever intended to be. It is philosophical and filled with information and science and raises questions that are essential to space colonization. That's the great part. The bad part is that it feels like an old man book. It is introverted, focused on people, their feelings, their shortcomings and ultimately advises we care more about our planet, the one we are perfectly adapted to live on, rather than imagine we can always find a replacement in deep space. That was a disappointment, not only because I am in Tsiolkovsky's camp, who famously said Earth is our cradle and we can't stay in the cradle forever, but also because the future, as seen by Robinson, is stagnant, with no evolution, no desire, no dreams other than those he considers foolish and even criminal. Stay in the cradle till we finally die, enjoying the golden age of our senescence. Bah!

Other than that I really appreciated the attention to details, taken from all kinds of disciplines, that the author put in the book. Stuff like the difference of evolution rate between complex organisms like people and the microbiomes inside them, or mineral balances, the effect of Coriolis forces on the well being of people and machinery, and so on and so on. It was ironic that the person everybody in the book revered was Devi, an brilliant engineer who always thought outside the box and solved problems. When she couldn't do that, everybody else just gave up. There is also a moment in the story when the colonists split into two groups. I found it almost insulting that the book only described the adventures of one of them and completely forgot about the other.

Bottom line: I liked most of the book, if not its ending moral. The style is a bit difficult, almost autistic, as half of the story is from the standpoint of the ship's AI and the other from the perspective of the protagonist who is unusually tall (for no reason that has any impact on the story) and a little slow in the head. I understand why some people actually hated it, but as we can learn from every viewpoint, and often more from one that is different from ours, this book has a lot to teach.

Here is an interview with the author, but be careful, only the left audio channel has voice, the other is an annoying music.