Friday, June 28, 2013


Jeff Noon
Tor (Macmillan), 2013 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Macmillan)
Size: Average (my hardcover copy has 376 pages)
Theme: Mind-altering drugs
Narrative: first-person
Main character: Scribble
Recommended minimum age: Young adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

Scribble and his gang members, self-termed the Stash Riders, are street junkies who have spent most of their lives attempting to steal or hustle society’s trend narcotic: vurt feathers. Vurt is a collective dream reality induced/achieved through feathers, which are manufactured by professionals who put together pieces of collected dreams. The feathers work by simply inserting them into a person’s mouth. Unfortunately, the mechanism of operation of the feathers is never adequately explained. As one would expect from any hallucinogenic, there are legal feathers, which are relatively soft and safe, and illegal ones, that range from exciting and dangerous up to elitist feathers that are the stuff of myth to the majority of the population. Scribble has lost his sister to the Vurt world, and he is willing to do anything to get her back. The novel follows his adventures as he fights towards that goal.

Vurt is much more than a story about experimenting with drugs; it explores topics such as desire, self-sacrifice, and the metaphysics of the existence in dream states. The plot is surprisingly rich for its length; nevertheless, it would definitely be possible to explore the characters in much more detail if the book was longer. There are lots of concepts thrown at the reader, but this ends up working fairly well. One never has that feeling of being completely lost; there is just enough light at the end of the tunnel to make you want to keep going. And the dream sequences are not simply random jumbling of words; it is possible to keep track of what is happening, even though some terms will require you to pay attention.

I usually dislike novels about drugs, and was skeptical when I started this. Many authors take that theme as a license to ramble about nothing in particular, and to describe non-coherent and irrational bits of a story. This is not the case. The book surprised me on the positive side. The plot is lively, daring, and fast paced. Scribble is confronted with many tough choices as the plot develops, giving us a chance to ponder on both legal and moral/ethical issues. I really enjoyed reading Vurt, and would recommend it as a break from hard sci-fi.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Count to a trillion

John C Wright
Tor, 2011 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Tor)
Size: Average (my paperback copy has 439 pages)
Theme: Alien civilizations invasion
Narrative: third-person 
Main character: Menelaus Montrose
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: LIKELY

Humanity has achieved the capability to become a spacefaring race, and an all-male crew is prepared to take the voyage aboard the Hermetic ion-driven spaceship to a nearby system, where they will attempt to study an alien artifact named “the Monument”. While there, they will collect anti-matter that would both fuel their return to Earth and have enough left over to supply the planet’s dwindling energy supplies for centuries. However, one of the scientists, Menelaus Montrose, does not believe they will be able to decipher the Monument’s inscriptions. As the voyage begins, he plans to experiment on himself in order to boost his intelligence to superhuman levels.  Almost 200 years later he awakes again on Earth, altered and with no memory of the relatively successful trip gone by. But the Monument was more than humanity bargained for, and suddenly there are more problems coming in the future than the current delicate and dangerous power struggles within the planet.

Before I read this novel I had heard it was a space opera, my favorite sci-fi genre. It really is not a space opera; despite the space theme, everything happens on Earth and with no alien contact (aside from the information from the Monument). The book has some action sequences, although it is mostly a mental exercise on future scenarios for humanity when confronted with the perspective of interaction with aliens. The narrative is very descriptive; so if you like to create detailed mental pictures about physical environments (such as the decoration of a room, paintings on walls, clothing, etc), you will enjoy the considerably long descriptions. One aspect that did not appeal to me was the verbosity, as if the author is trying to emphasize his eloquence. I quickly became convinced there was much unnecessary use of thesaurus throughout the text, instead of going for clarity, simplicity and parsimony.

Overall, it was a fun read, and I plan to go through the sequel, which will hopefully explore further the contact with alien species.