William Gibson – Neuromancer

Time for an old Sci-Fi classic.

With this book William Gibson defined the subgenre ‚Cyberpunk‘ in the world of Science Fiction. Literature in this genre plays with technological advances in mostly dystopian universes, depicting how societies and their protagonists deal with new technology. In this book Gibson introduces the concept of cyberspace into the world of fiction, quite visonary in the middle of the Eighties.

We follow the story of Case, a hacker, small-time gangster, drug-addict, getting by with criminal activities such as online fraud or stealing data. And one day he gets involved in something bigger and this is what the whole story is about, which I don´t want to spoil, because its a really good one. Actually the story is the main point which makes this an excellent read, it is fast paced, always to the point, contains some turns, without stressing believability and besides the main plot also has a love story woven into. Case meets Molly and they both seem to be made for one another, both develop a crack for each other, but I´m also not gonna tell how it turns out in the end.

Besides his excellent storytelling and character development his world-building is also nothing short of brilliant, the reader at once feels at home, can smell the dirt on the streets, feel the disharmonic society with its technological advancement from which only the few profit.

Neuromancer is the first book in the Sprawl-Trilogy and if I remember correctly the other two stories are also top-notch stuff, I´m thinking about reading them too. But Neuromacer is cleary the most iconic of these. So, if you´re into Science-Fiction, especially into cyberpunk (think of Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Richard Morgan) the this is an absolute must-read, no discussion. And if you like good storytelling and enjoy reading thrillers then I can also only highly recommend giving this a shot.

Thomas Nickerson, Owen Chase et al. – The loss of the ship Essex, sunk by a whale

What a title… sounds a bit scientific and indeed this is not a novel but contains first-person accounts assembled by a historican, it´s a historical book, a true story. I was a bit sick the last days and besides work was more or less spending my time in bed and this was on top of the shelf so yeah, why not read something about survival on the sea?

The background is told quickly and basically the title tells half of it. The whale boat Essex is attacked and sinked by a sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the 20-man crew travels 4,000 something miles in the byboats for 3 months till half of them are saved, the rest dies on the way. There are two narratives in the book, one by the first mate Owen Chase and one by the cabin boy, the 17 year old Thomas Nickerson. Chase´ accounts refer extensively about the time after the destruction of the Essex and is at times unbearable to read, how these poor souls have to ration food and water, how they land on an island only to find no fresh water and most cruely how they, to survive the last days, have to resort to cannibalism. It is a testament to how far one can suffer, how deep the survival instinct is rooted in man. Nickersons story is more shallow, focusing more on the time before the sinking, which port they were at, people they met and about whale hunting in general. Interesting somehow but nothing to be hyped about.

If you think now, sperm whales? sinking ship? wasn´t there some other, much more famous book called „Moby Dick“? you are definetly right. Herman Melville was to some (small I guess) extent influenced by Chase´ story, there are even some annotations from Melville in this book and in „Moby Dick“ he refers to the Essex at one point. The Essex disaster happened 30 years before „Moby Dick“ and was a big thing in the whaling community so this makes sense. But of course „Moby Dick“ is a different thing, a great story about revenge, stubborness, death.

Small excursion now. I actually don´t know how I got hold of this book or why I wanted to read it but I assume it had to do with a concert I visited in February, the band called „Ahab“ (who is the captain and main protagonist in „Moby Dick“) was giving a show here in Jena. (by the way, I´m thinking about opening up a new category here called Music where I write some concert reports.) So, „Ahab“ are a doom metal band, pretty sinister, but veeeery slooooww metal with growling, very niché. Their albums are always concept albums meaning they circle around one topic or in this case books, their first album is about said „Moby Dick“ for example. Anyways, I attended metal and hardcore and other concerts but doom was new to me and I was completely blown away. The music itself is not very complex or intriguing but the atmosphere it creates is fu…g intensive, very emotional. So, what was I saying… Ah, yes, I would not recommend listen to music while reading since it distracts too much but in this case, reading this book and listen to „Ahab“ makes perfect sense.

Ok, „Sinking of the Essex“, do I recommend it? Not really. But it´s also not a bad book, you fever with these guys, suffer with them and get to know something about the early 19th century and of course, its a first hand report so pepole actually lived through this sh.t.

Dashiell Hammett – Red Harvest

Dashiell Hammett has become one of my favourite authors in only two books, love on the first read if you like. He wrote detective stories in the 20´s and 30´s of the 20th century and is considered the founding father of the hard-boiled detective novel. In this niché category of novels the protagonist is an ambivanlent private detective who has to and will solve a more or less complicated case and people will die on the way. Also these stories include femme fatales, corrupt cops, lots of drinking, shady gangsters, murder and fast-paced action. As I would put it, these are dark Sherlock Holmes stories on speed and exchanging the snobbishness and gentlemanness with starightforwardness and violence. And what can I say, I love this stuff.
I got into him because my favourite sci-fi author Richard Morgan claims him to be one of his incluences and now I know where he got the inspiration for his main characters from.
His most famous story is “The Maltese Falcon” where private detective Sam Spade solves a mystery about some valuable artifact on which said shady persons take a lot of interest in.

But this story is topped by “Red Harvest” which is an absolutely hilarious book.
Anyone knows the movie “Last man standing” with Bruce Willis? If you like the movie then this is a must read. A nameless detective comes into a small town only to find his contractor dead. Turns out he was the son of the old grandfather of this town who got himself embroiled with some gangsters which now more or less control everything. So the detective is hired to clean up and he does this by playing all sides being friend and false friend to everybody. The story itself is quite complex with around 30 to 40 people being involved and its very difficult to find logical flaws because of this complexity. But anyways, if there are any, you wouldn´t notice because the story always goes on and on without time to take a breath. Top notch storytelling. Highly recommended.

Daniel Suarez – Change Agent

Daniel Suarez is IMHO the best and most important contemporary science fiction author.

His books all deal with relevant tech topics and their consequences on the future of mankind, nothing more, nothing less. Reading his books is not like ‚oh, that was nice entertainment – next‘ but rather ‚Daniel, thats a rather fictinous story you spun there, but it´s still fiction. Or not? Could such things eventually happen?‘

His first book, „Deamon“ deals with an AI influencing the real world, „Freedom“ a follow-up to that. „Kill Decision“ is about autonomous drones and is scary as hell. In „Influx“ scientists which discover breakthrough technologies are adbucted by a secret organization.

All books share the same action-paced, story-driven style, the stories itself make sense and are conclusive. His character development is not the best and the reader should not expect much poetry, this suffers from his action-focused style, giving the books a certain B-movie pulpy feel, so it´s more cheeseburger than dry-aged rib-eye slowly grilled, he surely doesn´t play in the same league as William Gibson or Thomas Pychon. I surely like his style though.

What he does incredibly well is world-building. His worlds are full with technologies which are in development in the real world or could be invented in the future. For example in „Deamon“ HUDs are a common thing; the book was written at a time when Google Glass was a mere speck on the horizon. In „Change Agent“ genetic alterations are common, in the real world, well you know the discussions about designer babies from China… His books are full of that and he casually mentions such technolgies, he doesn´t even rub it in. It´s just great. This gives him a very inventive (you could even say prophetic) touch, his books are thought-provoking and go beyond the stories. He shows a could-be world with all the positive and negative consequences on society, human development, politics etc. and in my opinion this is what sciene-fiction is about (at least the ‚real-world‘ science fiction, for the ‚Star Wars‘ science-fiction other rules apply): to show the dangers and benefits of technology, bring it on the radar and start a discussion about it.

„Change Agent“ is his best book beside „Deamon“ book, I think. The topic is gene-editing and he thinks it beyond eradicating inheritable diseases or attribute enhancement via embryo editing, in fact these things are common in the world he creates.

The story centres about a criminal organization which developed a way to … Sorry, no spoilers today. I want you to read it. In fact, I´d say that with „Change Agent“ there is now no way round Suarez when it comes to contemporary sci-fi. This one and „Deamon“ are must-reads if you´re into it. No excuses. You can thank me in 30 years when you´ll say about a technology: ‚I´ve read about this some years ago. Where was that? In the newspaper? No. a company brochure? No. Ah, now I remember – it was in a Suarez book.‘

Carlo Bonini – ACAB

Carlo Bonini ist italienischer Investigativjournalist und legt hier eine Mischung aus Dokumentation und Fiktion hin. Das Buch ist als Roman tituliert, vom Gefühl her scheint es aber wie eine Doku und ich denke mal er wird da einiges an Recherche reingesteckt haben. Es ist mehr oder weniger wie ein Episodenroman aufgebaut der lose um einen Hauptcharakter zirkuliert, der bei einer italienischen Spezialeinheit arbeitet die bei brisanten Fussballspielen oder dem G7-Gipfel in Genua zum Einsatz kommt, die Härtesten der harten Jungs sozusagen. Die Story hat letztlich auch einen Fixpunkt in eben jenem verhängnisvollen Gipfel bei dem ein Demonstrant von einem Polizisten erschossen wurde und mäandert sich dann zu Auseinandersetzungen mit Fussballfans. Das eigentlich „investigative“ Thema ist der Blick in das Innenleben eber jener Spezialeinheit, die von rechten Kräften, Machos und Schlägern unterwandert ist.

Großartigen Erkenntnisgewinn darf man hier nicht erwarten, das Buch ist auch nicht kontrovers oder aufrüttelnd sondern meiner Meinung nach eine rasant geschriebene Harte-Jungs-Story die sich aber nicht entscheiden kann ob sie Doku oder Roman sein will.

Kann man lesen, man hat aber nicht verpasst wenn mans nicht tut.

 

Vienna

Took a four day trip to Vienna beginning of August. The occasion was that my grandma had her 80th birthday this year and each year she visits an Open-Air-Operette south of Vienna and this year my mother, sister, aunt and uncle decided to join her. I went there by motorbike, 600 kms each way through the Eastern Czech Republic. So, the first part will be a motorbike story, if you don´t want to read (which I don´t recommend) scroll own to till to the first pic and you´ll be fine.

This was my first big drive since two years (the way to Vienna took me 10 hours, the way back 9) and I really enjoyed it, was one of the best things I´ve done this year. Going on a motorbike tour requires you to be at your best, it requires you to function at a very high level for a long time, keep up your concentration, have the skills, endure the weather, make decisions with little time and those are the things I enjoy, this is where I work best (and I´d even say where I excel) and which rewards me with (sometimes unbelievable) highs and experiences. Sure, not all rides are fun, sometimes its just about reaching the goal and push through the shit and on one shitty ride I almost lost my life but most of the tours were very good to extraordinary.

The two rides to Vienna and back were of the latter kind although it was raining at the beginning of each for two hours. So lets talk about rain first. Driving through rain sucks a bit, mostly because it drains your stamina faster. You need an extra bit of concentration especially on curvy roads, you have to drive slower (which is also a good thing because you drive more carefully), of course you´ll get soaked sooner or later and after arriving you´ll need more rest. I´m ambivalent with these conditions though, I like nice weather more thats for sure, but that extra toughness I need to show, pushing the limits – I enjoy that. And there are only few more beautiful sights than a misty forest with a wet road which looks like a mirror and the rain dripping into small ponds, just beauty. Anyways, motorbike driving is an outdoor activity and theres no sense complaining about the weather, if you want it easy drive a car or bus or don´t go at all.

Ok, after two hours of rain the weather got better, on the way back I even had sunshine half the way, and compared to my driving style throughout the last years I was driving faster and better, the skill I acquired is clearly showing. The biggest difference is that my style is more fluent and faster. Minor changes are that I take no prisoners when overtaking (in the past I was more hesitant when there was something slow ahead of me. These days I make decisions faster, am taking a bit more risk, am more decisive), my orientation and map-reading is better and my whole mindset is more evolved. I´m also more laid back when driving through villages (I don´t speed through towns only on road or highways) or having an obstacle in front of me which I can´t overtake on the fly, I just keep my distance and wait for the right occasion. But ok, all in all, I hope I never get stopped by the police because most of the time I´m driving more than is allowed, overtake where it´s not allowed (but safe), my driving style is defensive and doing no harm to anyone, but sometimes outside of the law.

This year I have two more tours coming, one to Grenoble which will be 1000 kms each direction and one to Athens which will be real test with 2500 kms each direction, most of it boring highway through Croatia and Serbia though.

Vienna I found to be overwhelming, flocks of people, classical architecture all over the place, bustling nightlife, everything expensive. I´m not sure about this city, not my favorite travel destination I know that much. I went there in 2009 on a bicycle tour so this was my second visit and this year was the more intensive visit but still, I enjoyed Kiev more for example. Still it is a nice city to stroll around, enjoy some architecture, visit cafes and see lots of people. I visited the Albertina, an art gallery which I think is one of the best. The Hall of the Muses is clearly a highlight, 10 marble statues of intense beauty, first time I saw this I imagined that if I were to become an artist later this life I´d try to create something like this; then I could go to the grave without worries. Just joking.

We went to this operette which was cancelled at half time because of bad weather – it was raining, of course. So, this was a trip where the rain spoiled the three most interesting parts of it, the two drives and the event for which we came. Still, I wasn´t too disappointed by the cancellation, an operette is basically a mixture of an opera and a theater piece, you have a story which is partly performed with dialogues and you have music pieces which are sung in a difficult to understand way. Definetly not my piece of cake, this was most certainly my first and last endeavor into this kind of performance.

The evenings I spent mostly talking with my sister and her boyfriend, one evening we went to the Hard-Rock-Cafe, my first (and maybe also my last) visit, its basically an expensive pub full of tourists, but a good way to get a party or some other night activity started, you´ll find lots of like-minded people there. I canceled this part though because I was to done from sightseeing and walking around.

The drive back started with rain as mentioned but nevertheless was a pretty nice one and I´m looking forward to the next motorbike frenzy which will take me to Grenoble where I´ll visit an old friend of mine. Next time I will maybe have some pictures of the bike and tell you a bit more about this beauty.

Richard Morgan – Black man

Another masterpiece by Richard Morgan.

Black man plays in the same league as the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. It´s a fast paced, partially violent, more than less complex story of a James-Bond-Terminator-Jason-Bourne lone wolf type of guy who gets things done. It also contains futuristic concepts (Mars colonization yeah) and plays somewhere in the future. The story takes a bit too many spins in the end maybe but hey, actually you don´t want to stop reading, at least I didn´t.

So, if you like hard-boiled sci-fi or fast-paced thrillers gibe it a try. If you´re a fan of Richard Morgan this is a must-read.

Donald Ray Pollock – The devil all the time

Brutal book, not an easy read. It is full of violence, perverted characters ( and I mean really abnormal like child abusing priests and a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style serial killer couple) with no humor and written in a very sinister language. But believe me, once you start to read and survive to page 10 without putting it away, you´ĺl get sucked into this downward spiral of darkness; this book is fascinating.

The story is manyfold and describes the lives and deaths of several characters in the bible-belt-US between 1945 and 1960. These lives and their either desolate or gruesome inner workings are depicted and meetings between the main characters end mostly fatal.

The main topics of the book are guilt and believe. All the bad guys in the book are guilty of something (mostly of murdering the innocent) and all the good guys are hardcore believers and only toys for the badasses – a bit too much black and white, although there are greyshades and the main character doesn´t fit into this black and white scheme either.

If you get your hands on this book give it a try. It´ll be a short read – either you put it away quickly or you´ll suck it in breathlessly.

Richard Morgan – Takeshi Kovacs trilogy

Well, well, Richard Morgan and his Takeshi Kovacs. These books have blown me out of the window together with the interior of the whole damn room. On my all time favorites list this trilogy would at least be in the top 10. It cannot gamble with “Ulysses”, “Lord of the rings”, “Das Boot” or “Bleeding edge” sure but after these there are a few candidates and Morgan is one of the better ones.

The books are called “Altered carbon”, “Broken angels” and “Woken furies” and are of equal quality, both all three compared and also in each book, you won´t find major divergences from the middle line, which means that if you read 50 or so pages of one book you know what the rest will be like. But this only refers to the style in which the book are written, storywise it´s only one direction – forward.

The story is about Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-black-ops special-force soldier (think of a mixture of James Bond, Jason Bourne with the unscrupulousness of the T1000) and plays several hundred years in the future. Technology has advanced to a point where the whole human brain can be downloaded into a stack and therefore be transferred into a new body. This implies that people are basically immortal. Also space travel and planetary colonization is common, the three books play on three different planets. There is an extinct race of extraterrestrials in the books (“Martians”; winged creatures, but technologically advanced. They have been able to travel space and construct advances weapons etc.) but they only play a minor role, most of the story is human-centric.

The first book, “Altered carbon”, plays on Earth where Kovacs uncovers a ploy amongst the rich. In the second book “Broken angels” he leads a group of mercs and scientists on a war-torn planet on an expedition to uncover martian secrets. In the third book “Woken furies” he is back on his home planet (hundreds of years after his birth), has an encounter with a feminist-religious rebellion leader long thought dead and teams up with old mates to free her from the hands of the ruling family. This book has an exceptional ending.

All of these are full of fast-paced action, violent shootouts and killing, philosophy about society, friendship and life in general, meager dialogues, the occasional (very explicit) sex-scene, all in all very hard-boiled literature, certainly nothing for the faint-hearted.

I´m not sure why I´m so fascinated by these books, but ok, I certainly like when a book has action in it, when the story is pushed forward without much hesitance, when there is some philosophy in it, when there are no long passages of lets say landscape descriptions, also to me most of the characters don´t need depth, I´m fine with stereotype descriptions of thugs, prostitutes, the rich etc. Add to that the sci-fi scenario and basically thats it. These books got me.

Also these books bring up something inside me which is a bit scary and that is the lust for violence, or better said I don´t mind reading about the violence displayed in the book. Now, I´m a very peaceful person and do definetly not enjoy watching horror movies or shit like that. But when reading about it, fine and entertaining – scary, as I said.

All in all, if you want to read some sci-fi and don´t mind the above said things give these a try, I promise you´ll not be disappointed.