Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wildside Review!

A while back it was my pleasure to participate in the 'crowdsource proofreading project' for Steven Gould's new ebook edition of Wildside. It was a good deal; I got to read an old favorite and test drive a couple of ebook formats and all I had to do was report any errors I found.

Well, here's my promised review of the book.


Young Charlie Newell discovers a doorway to an alternate version of earth where man never existed - the eponymous wildside. Flocks of Passenger pigeons still fill the skies, mammoth and bison still roam the plains, and dire wolves and saber tooth tigers still lurk in the tall grass.

If you found something like this, what would you do?

Make money of course!

Fresh out of High School, Charlie enlists four friends in his (environmentally concious) money making schemes.

Praise and Criticisms:

First of all, I've got to say that I really enjoy this book. I first read it twelve years ago when I was in high school. Re-reading it, although I have done so at least twice before, was a little bit like coming home again. I was also able to pick out more references to Monty Python as well as The Chronicles of Narnia this time around.

Normally I cringe when the label 'Young Adult' is thrown around, especially if it relates to a novel I still enjoy. However, I do admit that the clichéd flaws each character struggles with really lend this book an 'after school special'-esque feeling. There's the gay guy coming out to his friends, the alchoholic, and the guy with father issues who also has trouble getting a girlfriend.

The strangest thing about the 'wildside' of the gate is the ecology. You see, the alternate version of earth on the other side of the gate purportedly differs from the earth on our side of the gate in one key way: human's never existed there. Therefore, the pleistocene kill-off never hapened, and the climate is cooler because no one burned all of those evil fossil fuels.

Now I'm not go into a long debate about climate change, but I will point out that history tells us that earth's climate has never been static. Where I live it was a desert 6,000 years ago. How the Wooly Mammoth would have survived that, I don't know. Either way, I doubt that the adventurers in the novel would have encountered Woods Bison on the wildside. Not with sabre tooth tigers still prowling around. Bison antiquus was the ice age species and was better adapted to deal with dire wolves and saber tooth tigers. Why bison alone would have evolved into a more familiar species, I can't fathom.

But hey, it is, after all, an alternate earth. Who's to say how similar it has to be to our earth, just as long as it pushes your own political agenda…

And I suppose Charlie could have been mistaken in his identification.

My largest complaint, however, stems from something I had failed to fully appreciate before:

Spoiler alert!

Charlie fully expected to confront the government from the very begining! Sure, he didn't expect it to go to such an extreme, but to proceed with an action so likely to raise suspicion as to start selling Passenger Pigeons is kind of a dick move.

Or just plain dumb.

I mean, really? Charlie couldn't come up with a better plan to generate his start up cash?

I still like it, but it's not as good as Jumper.

Rating: ***/5

BTW, Columbicola extinctus and Campanulotes defectus are not extinct

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blindsight by Peter Watts

I don't know what to think about this book. There is a lot I like about it, but at least as much that I don't like. I suppose that's a good thing. I mean, if a book was exactly what I expect it to be, I wouldn't have to read it now would I?


Mysterious objects blaze through earth's atmosphere. A strange construct is detected out in the black, headed this way.

This is a novel about first contact.

Siri 'Cygnus' Keeton, a man with only half a brain, and his artificially augmented crewmates led by a Vampire are sent out to investigate. What they find will bring insight into the nature of the universe as well as the nature of humanity.

This a novel about the futility of our existence.

What I Like

Okay, now that I've got that out of the way lets get into Potential Spoiler Territory.

This is ostensibly a tale of adventure and discovery, an odyssey if you like. I like adventure stories. But in this novel, it is just one the many frames around the novel's core philosophical message. Unfortunately there isn't much action until well into the book, and even that is relatively scarce. The discovery part is slightly more interesting.

Speaking of frames, the most obvious one is the running narration by the protagonist, Siri. I think the decision to go with an unreliable narrator is the true genius of this book because the story is, at least in part, about identity, self discovery, and human ability to perceive reality.

I rather enjoyed the philosophical discussion presented in this book, even if I cannot agree with the conclusions. Although the concepts bandied around are often hard to follow for all the jargon, they are compelling enough to make the effort. The main course of the discussion is solid existentialism with a heavy dose of nihilism wrapped around the philosophy of mind. The tone of it all, if not the content, reminded me very much of the writings of another Canadian author, Karl Schroeder (my current favourite), so I wasn't very surprised that Watts credited him in the afterward with much of the input in this regard.

There is also plenty of speculation about future technologies, the highlight for me being the human hibernation process. I loved the description of the process being as if they were dessicated corpses coming back to life like zombies or something. Of course, as described in the book it only really works if you've had Vampire DNA grafted on to your own.

Which brings me to my next point, the fantastically weird crew. Siri is a man with half a brain, the other half of his skull filled with bits of computer, who acts more like Data, the Android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, always trying to be human. There is also Susan James aka. The Gang of Four who has had her conscience artificially split into four individuals. Then there is their Vampire leader, Serasti, a creature recreated from ancient DNA whose ancestors once stalked ours across the savannah. Even the ship, Theseus, is intelligent. Delightfully quirky!

What I Dislike

The biggest drawback for me is that this book doesn't really get interesting until about page 300. Partly this is because the author spent a lot of time on Siri's backstory; a backstory that is perhaps necessary for the message of the novel, but which I found to be mundane. I also didn't find it to be entirely successful at explaining Siri's affliction. Now I admit to not spending much time researching any potential links between hemispherectomies and psychopathy or autism but I don't believe there is one.

Another major drawback for me is that the characters of Amanda Bates, Isaac Spindzell, and Robert Cunningham are not strange enough. The later two are purported to be amped up humans with so many technological enhancements they can no longer feel with their own hands. Instead, they come across as rather baseline humans with a few more research tools that have trouble walking.

Finally, I felt that the vampire vulnerabilty to right angles, i.e. crosses, was a lame concession to the old vampire legends. According to the timeline in the book, vampires died out long before Christianity developed. How the two would become associated is beyond my comprehension.


I found this novel to be an eclectic mix of Canadian and British SF styles. It has the philosophy of Karl Schroeder, the societal dysfunction of Robert J. Sawyer, and the pessimism of virtually all British SF. He even has a tacked on, tangential ending much like most of Alastair Reynolds' books.

At least I know what James Nicoll was talking about now.

"Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts."
I would have to say that you should avoid this book if you are:
- looking for an adventure story
- confounded by big words
- prone to depression



BTW, This novel, as well as the rest of Peter Watts' work, is freely available on his website, rifters.com