Review: Tôru – Wayfarer Returns

Posted on November 23rd, 2016 @ 21:19
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Toru: Wayfarer Returns (Sakura Steam Series Book 1)Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie R. Sorensen

My rating:

Blurb:

Revolutionary young samurai with dirigibles take on Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in this alternate history steampunk technofantasy set in 1850s samurai-era Japan.

In Japan of 1852, the peace imposed by the Tokugawa Shoguns has lasted 250 years. Peace has turned to stagnation, however, as the commoners grow impoverished and their lords restless. Swords rust. Martial values decay. Foreign barbarians circle the island nation’s closed borders like vultures, growing ever more demanding.

Tōru, a shipwrecked young fisherman rescued by American traders and taken to America, defies the Shogun’s ban on returning to Japan, determined to save his homeland from foreign invasion. Can he rouse his countrymen in time? Or will the cruel Shogun carry out his vow to execute all who set foot in Japan after traveling abroad? Armed only with his will, a few books, dirigible plans and dangerous ideas, Tōru must transform the Emperor’s realm before the Black Ships come.

Tōru: Wayfarer Returns is the first book in the Sakura Steam Series, an alternate history of the tumultuous period from the opening of Japan in 1853 to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. This volume covers the year prior to the American Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan and follows the hero and his young allies as they lead Japan through a massively compressed industrial revolution, dramatically altering that pivotal moment in history.

While Tōru and his dirigibles are fictional, the story unfolds against the backdrop of the “real” Japan of that period, with historical figures and their political environment woven into the tale, staying true to their motivations and agendas even as the alternate history warps their actions, history and a few laws of physics. Underpinning the adventure plot is a young man’s yearning for his father’s approval and an honorable place in his world.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

More an alternate history novel than a truly steampunk one, “Tôru: Wayfarer Returns” deals with late feudal Japan faced with the potential intruding of American civilisation—more specifically, the last years of the Tokugawa bakumatsu, and the arrival of Commander Perry and his “black ships”. The idea: what if, instead of feeling inferior to this technology, Japan at the time had had an industrial revolution of its own, and had been able to withstand such demonstration of power?

Enters Tôru, a young fisherman who, after being shipwrecked, was saved by Americans, and spent two years in their country before coming back to Japan with books, blueprints, and lots, lots of ideas about how to revolutionise his country for the day Westerners come to impose their trade and culture on it. Things aren’t meant to be easy for him, first and foremost because bringing western books and machinery to these lands, and sneaking in at night, are deemed traitorous acts, punishable by death. When Lord Aya catches wind of this, his first reaction is to get the traitor executed. Except that ideas are contagious, and Tôru’s more than others.

This first volume in the “Sakura Steam” series shows how a handful of daimyôs and commoners manage to find common ground to dig the foundations of Japan’s industrialisation: first in secrecy, then by ensuring the support of some of the most powerful coastal lords, to make sure that when the Shôgun hears about this (and he will), they’ll have grounds to argue their case, machines to show off, and engineers to explain how said machines will allow their country to stand strong and proud. These rebels definitely go against the stream in many ways, by also allowing commoners and women to take part in engineering trains and dirigibles. And even though some characters are (understandably, considering their upbringing) against this, they do try and see how this could change the world, and acknowledge that such “unexpected people” will do good and have a place in this new order. Not to mention that Jiro the blacksmith, or Masuyo the noble lady, are pleasant characters to see evolve, and I liked when they had parts to play; even some of the more unpleasant characters, like Lady Tômatsu, had their redeeming features.

However, while this is all very exciting, I could never really shake my suspension of disbelief, because everything happened both much too fast and sometimes too slowly as well:
- The “rebels” should logically have been discovered sooner.
- And, more importantly, building railroad tracks, engines, a fleet of dirigibles, a telegraph network, etc, in secrecy, with the (limited) means of a handful of daimyôs, in less than one year, seemed too far-fetched to be believable. Granted, they had blueprints and all; on the other hand, all those engineers had to learn from scratch, only from those blueprints not even in Japanese, translated and explained only by Tôru who isn’t even an engineer, and… Well. Really, really hard to believe. Had it been done in a few years rather than a few months, I probably would have been, paradoxically, more excited about it.
- At times the narrative devolves into explanations about the political views during the Bakumatsu, the fixed place of samurai vs. commoners—which is interesting, but was dumped in between scenes. It would have been more welcome if better intertwined with the dialogue and action, which in turn would also have left more room to the characters to fully interact, giving us a better feel for them.
- It would’ve been more interesting IMHO to see a different “industrialisation”, and not a mere “westernisation” of Japan. Something that would’ve mixed traditional/feudal ways with modern weaponry, instead of having basically one or the other.
- Minor pet peeve: Tôru’s secret, which he takes great pains to hide, but is much too obvious to the reader, almost from the beginning.

Conclusion: I wish it had been more “believable” in terms of alternate history, and had provided a different path than the expected one.

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Review: Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online

Posted on November 23rd, 2016 @ 00:06
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Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence OnlineHaters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online by Bailey Poland

My rating:

Blurb:

Cybersexism is rampant and can exact an astonishingly high cost. In some cases, the final result is suicide.

Bullying, stalking, and trolling are just the beginning. Extreme examples such as GamerGate get publicized, but otherwise the online abuse of women is largely underreported. Haters combines a history of online sexism with suggestions for solutions.

Using current events and the latest available research into cybersexism, Bailey Poland questions the motivations behind cybersexist activities and explores methods to reduce footprints of Internet misogyny, drawing parallels between online and offline abuse. By exploring the cases of Alyssa Funke, Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and others, and her personal experiences with sexism, Poland develops a compelling method of combating sexism online.

Review:

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I don’t read non-fiction that often, so when I do, I always want those books to be good, to teach me something, and/or to make me think. I guess this one was all three? I pretty much “enjoyed” reading it—from an academic point of view, because let’s be honest, the problems it describes aren’t so savoury, and it’s such a shame they’re still here in 2016. Interesting, too, was how I could discuss it with a couple of friends, and they hadn’t necessarily realised either all that online harrassment involves: not just the insulting posts/tweets/interactions, but how all those get dismissed so easily, and by basically everybody and their dog, under the umbrella of “don’t feed the trolls” and “if you don’t like it, just turn off your computer”.

Because not feeding offenders doesn’t mean they’ll stop: what they want is not always attention, but the feeling that they’ve “won” by driving you away.

Because “just turn the computer off” is not a solution, especially not in our age where every potential recruiter and employer looks you up on the web, and if you don’t maintain some kind of online presence, you’re not good enough, but if what they find are blogs and profiles defaced by abusers, it’s even worse.

Because, sadly but unsurprisingly, it still all ties into the “blame the victim” culture; into victims being the ones who must waste time and make efforts to get rid of the abuse; into (yes, once again) the fact that women and minorities get a lot more abuse than ye olde middle-class white guy—and that it’s about abusers demanding that their victims waste their time on them, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I’ve been lucky so far in terms of abuse, but I’ve lived in bad places offline and I know what it is to get cat-called by shady guys in the street, who then proceed to insult you when you don’t drop everything you’re doing to turn all your attention to them. So, yeah, when we have to contend with that shite online as well? Not good.

Sadly here as well, people who’d benefit most from reading such a book (in order to realise why it’s not okay—or that we’ve called their BS long ago and the only ones they’re fooling is themselves) won’t read it, won’t care, will probably abuse the author, whatever. Nevertheless, I think this would be food for thought for many, many other people: it’s amazing (and worrying) how easy it is to internalise that culture of abuse, to react ourselves with mild aphorisms like “just block them”, as if ignoring what’s happening will make it vanish by magic. Tiny little details that we continuously feed into our own daily narratives, poisoning ourselves, even when we’re obviously against abuse and behave in civil ways otherwise.

The author provides quite a few examples of abuse situations or larger events like the Gamergate, showing how abusers behave, and what kind of dangers this can all lead to, ranging from personal and professional issues to physical wounds and worse (revealing information like Social Security numbers and addresses, for the targets to be abused offline as well).

The one thing I found a little difficult at times was the academic style, which was dry in places, and sometimes seemed to repeat itself (possibly in attempts to keep it to a more generic kind of language, I’d say, and prevent it from immediately being labelled as “see you’re writing about abusers but you do that in an offending way”—also note the irony of, once again, having to keep ourselves in check so that the real abusers won’t be able to bounce on it). On the other hand, the book as a whole is accessible and not “hard” to read and understand.

Conclusion: Important matter, dealt with in understandable ways, and deserving of being read by a wide range of people.

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I don’t read non-fiction that often, so when I do, I always want those books to be good, to teach me something, and/or to make me think. I guess this one was all three? I pretty much “enjoyed” reading it—from an academic point of view, because let’s be honest, the problems it describes aren’t so savoury, and it’s such a shame they’re still here in 2016. Interesting, too, was how I could discuss it with a couple of friends, and they hadn’t necessarily realised either all that online harrassment involves: not just the insulting posts/tweets/interactions, but how all those get dismissed so easily, and by basically everybody and their dog, under the umbrella of “don’t feed the trolls” and “if you don’t like it, just turn off your computer”.

Because not feeding offenders doesn’t mean they’ll stop: what they want is not always attention, but the feeling that they’ve “won” by driving you away.

Because “just turn the computer off” is not a solution, especially not in our age where every potential recruiter and employer looks you up on the web, and if you don’t maintain some kind of online presence, you’re not good enough, but if what they find are blogs and profiles defaced by abusers, it’s even worse.

Because, sadly but unsurprisingly, it still all ties into the “blame the victim” culture; into victims being the ones who must waste time and make efforts to get rid of the abuse; into (yes, once again) the fact that women and minorities get a lot more abuse than ye olde middle-class white guy—and that it’s about abusers demanding that their victims waste their time on them, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I’ve been lucky so far in terms of abuse, but I’ve lived in bad places offline and I know what it is to get cat-called by shady guys in the street, who then proceed to insult you when you don’t drop everything you’re doing to turn all your attention to them. So, yeah, when we have to contend with that shite online as well? Not good.

Sadly here as well, people who’d benefit most from reading such a book (in order to realise why it’s not okay—or that we’ve called their BS long ago and the only ones they’re fooling is themselves) won’t read it, won’t care, will probably abuse the author, whatever. Nevertheless, I think this would be food for thought for many, many other people: it’s amazing (and worrying) how easy it is to internalise that culture of abuse, to react ourselves with mild aphorisms like “just block them”, as if ignoring what’s happening will make it vanish by magic. Tiny little details that we continuously feed into our own daily narratives, poisoning ourselves, even when we’re obviously against abuse and behave in civil ways otherwise.

The author provides quite a few examples of abuse situations or larger events like the Gamergate, showing how abusers behave, and what kind of dangers this can all lead to, ranging from personal and professional issues to physical wounds and worse (revealing information like Social Security numbers and addresses, for the targets to be abused offline as well).

The one thing I found a little difficult at times was the academic style, which was dry in places, and sometimes seemed to repeat itself (possibly in attempts to keep it to a more generic kind of language, I’d say, and prevent it from immediately being labelled as “see you’re writing about abusers but you do that in an offending way”—also note the irony of, once again, having to keep ourselves in check so that the real abusers won’t be able to bounce on it). On the other hand, the book as a whole is accessible and not “hard” to read and understand.

Conclusion: Important matter, dealt with in understandable ways, and deserving of being read by a wide range of people.

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Review: Pirate Utopia

Posted on November 19th, 2016 @ 18:34
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Pirate UtopiaPirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling

My rating:

Blurb:

Who are these bold rebels pillaging their European neighbors in the name of revolution? The Futurists! Utopian pirate warriors of the diminutive Regency of Carnaro, scourge of the Adriatic Sea. Mortal enemies of communists, capitalists, and even fascists (to whom they are not entirely unsympathetic).

The ambitious Soldier-Citizens of Carnaro are led by a brilliant and passionate coterie of the perhaps insane. Lorenzo Secondari, World War I veteran, engineering genius, and leader of Croatian raiders. Frau Piffer, Syndicalist manufacturer of torpedos at a factory run by and for women. The Ace of Hearts, a dashing Milanese aristocrat, spymaster, and tactical savant. And the Prophet, a seductive warrior-poet who leads via free love and military ruthlessness.

Fresh off of a worldwide demonstration of their might, can the Futurists engage the aid of sinister American traitors and establish world domination?

Review:

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]

A book that, to me, was more interesting for the world it developed than for its actual plot—I’d definitely like to see this “Futurist 1920s Italia/Europe/USA” revisited and developed more, especially for what the author does with famous figures and events of that time period.

So. It is 1920 in Fiume, and this town poised between Italia and Croatia is run by pirates: anarchists and artists, writers and syndicalists, all at once, boasting ideals and beliefs in the Future, taking over factories and throwing away rich capitalists. It is 1920, and Communism has been alive and kicking for quite a while. Gabriele d’Annunzio is the Prophet (and the man who really established the Republic of Carnaro in our world, too); Harry Houdini, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are working as flamboyant spies for the US government; and in Berlin, a young man by the name of Adolf dies to protect another man in a bar brawl, thus never starting on the path he will be known for in our History. And he’s not the one, far from it.

I loved what Bruce Sterling did with this alternate history, dieselpunk Europe, full of contradictions: praise for the Future and strong beliefs and angular colourful clothes; rambunctious pirates proud of their ways, fascists with minds turned towards a different ideology, and engineers stealing armoured cars from the rioters who stole them first; beautiful and mysterious artist women, and a magician without fear who may or may not be human; but also factories churning torpedoes, small guns produced by the hundreds and used as currency, manifestos and propaganda, and a mounting tendency towards a new war.

A constant energy permeated the narrative, nervous and stressful in parts, ecstatic in others, and it provided for a fascinating read. There’s humour and pulp and inventions and scary ideas as well in there. There’s speed and technology and violence, carried by a youthful spirit—in one word, Futurismo—reflected in the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. Delightful.

What I regret is that it didn’t go further. This is more a novella, and one that stops at a turning point that I would so much have wanted to see developed and explored. (In an interview, the author explains his choice, and the writer in me can totally understand it; still, the reader in me felt sad at leaving that alternate world so soon.)

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Mr Sterling, are you going to revisit this world soon? Please.

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Review: Homo Deus

Posted on November 17th, 2016 @ 00:30
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Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating:

Blurb:

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

Review:

[I got a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Interesting for the possibilities it presents, even if I’m not 100% convinced about some of the scientific explanations. On the other end, not being a specialist, I’m not discarding them either.

The writing style was very easy to follow and engaging, making it a pleasant read that I kept going back to. Some themes that could’ve been fairly dry, like recapping humanity’s history and evolution, were done so in a way that explained the essential parts without making them unpalatable.

A lot of theories in this book hinge on organisms being driven by algorithms, like machines are. Biological algorithms, that is: stimuli triggering responses that follow a set of instructions (see threat – produce adrenaline – react, that kind of instructions). Well, why not! I do enjoy my little world of believing that, because I’m a human being, I am exceptional, but if I think about it, I’m still an organic machine, with needs for fuel, and a limited self-repair ability. And so, as algorithms-based beings, there’s a fine line to thread between creating always more powerful computers, and maybe one day being driven by them, with their ability to process so much more data, and so much faster. AIs composing music or haiku, after being programmed with complex sets of algorithms to reproduce what would touch human ears and trigger emotions: something that is both fascinating (how far we’ve gone) and frightening (we’re not so unique anymore).

Following this, the book explores potential outcomes: if we end up building machines that can perform better and faster (like the Google automated car that will apply the brakes in time vs. a tired human who won’t react fast enough) , won’t we become obsolete? What can we do then, what kinds of occupations for us, and if none—can a sustainable economy grow out of this, making it sustainable for everybody, or will humans just have to go down the road of extinction?

In general, though I felt this book wasn’t going far enough in presenting those possibilities both exciting and scary (improved humans vs. free will as being only the product of our desires/algorithms). Sometimes I had the feeling I had already read something similar in a previous chapter. Somehow it seems to be better inspiration for a sci-fi novel than for actual theories about what may happen in the future?

Still, it’s food for thought. Also, from other reviews, it may be that a previous book (“Sapiens”) by this author would be more interesting, so I may be tempted to read it later.

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Review: Dark Matter

Posted on November 11th, 2016 @ 00:39
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Dark MatterDark Matter by Blake Crouch

My rating:

Blurb:

“Are you happy with your life?”

Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.

Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.

Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

Review:

[I received a copy of this novel through Edelweiss.]

Reviewing this book without spoilers is hard, especially since some of those spoilers would illustrate my “buts…”. I’ll try.

In general, I did enjoy this story. It plays on the endless possibilities offered by other universes, and on the conundrums they entail—i.e. that our lives rest on the many choices we make, and that one tiny choice can be the trigger to a huge event. Jason’s trials in that regard constantly force him to consider this aspect, this grand scheme of things, because in that, too, the tiniest mistake can have terrible consequences.

Jason as a character had his highs and lows. There were moments when he made some pretty bad/dangerous choices, making me wonder if he had turned too-stupid-to-live (I’ll just mention the red and black squares here—emotional and very humane moment, but I seriously expected Jason and his companion to drag that baggage further into the story, and they were just uber lucky, I guess?). At other moments, he proved himself to be a kind and decent person, who made choices not based on what he would like, but on what the people he loved would prefer. And yet nothing is all black and white here, because the way the last quarter of the story turns out, it makes you wonder: could he have changed, become different, if life had treated him differently?

A lot of emotions in there, for sure. Some very poignant scenes. Others that were both frightening and somewhat funny at the same time, towards the end, considering the people Jason has to face. The explanation as to what triggered what was behind the “doors”, well, that was interesting, and in fact logical, considering the explanation given about those.

I liked Amanda as well, and to be honest, I would’ve loved to see more of her. (I kept wondering if something would happen; part of me is glad of how it turned out, and another part keeps wondering “what if”. What’s her story exactly? What will it be? In a world with endless possibilities, not knowing at least one is… troubling.

I guess this is one of what I’d call weak points here, in that the narrative being Jason’s, we only get to see a very subjective view of it all, and characters who deserved to be fleshed out more, whom I sensed could be and do more, were thus sidelined because those other aspects of their personalities and lives weren’t what Jason considered. (Also, the use of a couple of tropes in order to get rid of some characters; it’s like they weren’t so important in the end to the author, but to me, they were, and would’ve deserved more screen time, even though I totally get why these tropes were used, and to what effect.)

The narrative style as well felt problematic—as usual with first person present tense, as far as I’m concerned. While it does lend a sense of immediacy and urgency to the novel (especially with the short sentences or even one-worders interspersed throughout), it also felt too abrupt, and conflicting with the more introspective pages. But then, as I mentioned in other reviews, this specific tense choice is a pet peeve of mine.

Finally, I’m not too sure about the scientific theories underlining the story. I’m not too knowledgeable about that, so I can’t really tell if they were definitely interesting and believable in terms of quantum mechanics, or if they’re just grazing the surface. I suspect the latter (I did have that feeling I wanted to know more, see those theories described in more details), yet in terms of plot device, well, it worked well enough for me to go along with the ride and enjoy it.

Conclusion: 3.5/4 stars.

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