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Saturday, November 29, 2008

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cover of 'The Peace War'

What cost is too high for Peace? This book presents a world ruled by the "Peace Authority", a group who created a new technology that allowed them to enapsulate anything or anyone that they deemed dangerous to mankind (e.g., nuclear weaponry and the people with the power to use it), in an impervious, reflective "bobble." Now, fifty years later, the world is a wild, feudal land with little 'civilized' government in the ruins of the cities of California (large portions of the population were destroyed by a bio-engineered plague around the time the Peace Authority took over). Innovative new technology is being designed and created by the "Tinkers," family groups, and they rely on algorithms designed by the elderly Paul Naismith. When Paul sees a nearby bobble burst and makes the discovery that the people using the technology didn't really understand it to begin with, he uses his wits, his new apprentice, and his Tinker allies to wage war on the Peace authorities who have tried to contain anything "dangerous" in humanity.

In their attempts to keep humanity from self-destructing, the leaders of the Peace effort destroyed any government that might have been capable of resisting them, and they keep any new governments or technologies from progressing far enough to become a threat. The result is that they are keeping all of humanity in a feudal state and stifling innovation; their own technology has barely progressed from what they were using fifty years before, which was plenty when they were the only one with the all-powerful bobble technology. There are also subtle suggestions that gender roles and equality have regressed in this time; one of the most clever and successful agents working for the Peace Authority is a woman, and her place and authority is questioned by many of those around her, yet she is fiercely loyal to the Peace Authority. The Tinker families are very patriarchal, and women aren't allowed to be involved much in the technical work or in the big decisions. This state of affairs is highlighted by the contrast with Allison Parker, a woman from fifty years before....

Some of the most interesting ideas are about creativity - Paul's insight into the way bobbles actually work gives him the capability to use bobbles defensively instead of only for attack. Similarly, the Tinker technology is much more sophisticated than the Peacers suspect-- partly because they haven't been developing their own technology, and even seem to have lost some understanding of the old technologies they use that have kept them dominant. For one thing, the Tinker tech is much more energy efficient-- because they had such limited resources, they figured out a way to adapt.

I found this to be an exciting book, and very readable (although it took me a while to get engaged and really drawn in), but there are a lot of ideas here that are quit thought-provoking.

Title:The Peace War
Author:Vernor Vinge
Date published:1984
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:304
Notes:recommended and loaned by Levi


Friday, November 14, 2008

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cover of Sunshine

I re-read this book over a weekend when I wasn't feeling well, and it was perfect timing to forget how miserable I was and lose myself for a while in Sunshine's fascinating world of vampires and magic and baked goods. I guess that means that it must be "escapist" literature, although I don't really think of it that way. There is so much worth thinking about here, and parts of this book stay with me. Sunshine discovered more of herself and who she is-- and she struggles with it, because she thinks it means that she is some kind of monster. She has this dark "affinity" for vampires, even helped save one, which she's sure no one around her could understand (although it is her very generosity towards the unthinkably Dark Other that saves her). She thinks this makes her a dark creature herself, but those around her have to help her see that it is because of her brightness, because of who she is and the source of her power, that she can face such darkness.

The fascinating character of Con, Sunshine's unlikely vampire ally, gives McKinley the chance to dig into the workings of vampires in this world she's created. Vampires are completely other and scary to humans on an instinctive level, as hunter to prey. The normal path for a vampire who survives to any kind of age is to become a wealthy master vampire with teams of younger vampires working for him-- in part, because the old vampire can't go out in any kind of light, even moonlight. We see this with Con's enemy Bo-- he has become so corrupt and evil through satisfying every dark appetite he could imagine for many centuries that he is no longer even fully corporeal.

A great book that I could (will) re-read again. I see that McKinley has published a few other books lately, which is exciting, but I hope that sometime she gets inspired to give us another glimpse of Sunshine and her world.

Author:Robin McKinley
Date published:2003
Genre:Horror / Fantasy
Number of pages:405
Notes:repeat reading


Friday, November 07, 2008

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cover of Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume 1

It was so delightful to read the newer Chrestomanci books and re-acquaint myself with the wonderful characters of Cat and Christopher Chant that I found myself wanting to go back and read their own stories again. Both stories tell stories about young boys with nine lives, destined to be the Chrestomanci, the only magic-user powerful enough to police the rest of the magics in the twelve related worlds. But when we meet them, both boys are quite powerless and pretty lonely, and don't have any idea that they are actually powerful magicians. In Charmed Life, the orphan Cat lives with his beloved sister Gwendolyn, who is very pretty and seems to be a talented young witch. What he (and we) don't realize for quite some time is that Gwendolyn isn't all that powerful on her own; she has simply been using Cat's magic. In The Lives of Christopher Chant, young Christopher isn't an actual orphan but he might as well be-- his rich, society mother drives away his kind, worried father (who has enough premonition to sense something bad is going to happen to Christopher, but not enough power to know what to do about it). In his dreams, Christopher travels to strange and wonderful lands, but the gifts from strangers that he carries back in his dreams actually end up in his bedroom. When a clever nanny figures out what this means, Christopher's uncle begins making use of this ability to do some "experiments"; the young, lonely Christopher is so eager to please his uncle that it doesn't occur to him for quite some time that he might be doing something dangerous or illegal.

Cat and Gwendolyn eventually go to live with Chrestomanci (the grown-up Christopher Chant). Chrestomanci decides that Gwendolyn cannot be taught or practice magic until she has caught up on other things (which she neglected entirely, devoting herself to magic). Her tantrums and spiteful magic on the castle grounds, in the house, at the dinner table, and the like are quite entertaining and an interesting look at what it might be like to live with a powerful and capricious teenager (hopefully anyone who has to deal with that has a staff of trained magicians to clean up and keep them in check, as Chrestomanci does). Eventually, she decides she isn't going to get what she wants so she decides to jump to a different reality where she will be worshipped and adored-- but in doing so, she burns up another of Cat's nine lives and shifts a whole sequence of alternate Gwendolyn doubles into different realities, leaving a girl named Janet from an unmagical world like ours in her place. Finally, Cat makes the painful discovery that Gwendolyn was completely selfish and uncarinng, and he finally decides that he does mind having his magic borrowed and used without his permission, and is able to use some of his powers to help save the day in the climactic fight.

The young Christopher Chant seems to have no aptitude for magic because of an undiagnosed magical "allergy" that inhibits his powers. When he finally goes to a teacher that his father finds, he is instructed to empty his pockets, and then when he does the spell that's asked of him he had so much power he lifts the whole roof of the house off. The travelling between worlds that he does is also quite powerful and beyond what most people can do; because of his nine lives, he can just leave a life behind in bed and go somewhere else. But there are consequences, too-- when an accident kills his dream-self, then something similar happens in real life to finish the job and takes on of his lives. In the midst of his world travels and unknown black-market smuggling for his uncle, Christopher meets and strikes up a friendship with a girl who is the living Asheth, a goddess-- in exchange for a temple cat named Throgmorten, he brings her books to read.

Although he is pretty unhappy about it, Christopher eventually goes to live with the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt. When de Witt is incapacitated in the fight against the mysterious smuggler they can't seem to catch (Christopher's uncle), Christopher has to take over organizing the fight (with some help from Throgmorten and Millie, the former Living Asheth, who chose a name from her favorite series of books about a schoolgirl), Christopher has a revelation-- he sees that de Witt doesn't enjoy his duties as Chrestomanci at all, but finds that he, Christopher, loves it and is actually pretty good at it.

Title:The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume 1 consists of Charmed Life (1977) and The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988)
Author:Diana Wynne Jones
Date published:2001
Genre:Young Adult Fantasy
Number of pages:598
Notes:second reading


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