Book Review: Great North Road

Peter F. Hamilton has a large collection of works published, including the very popular series Night’s Dawn, and the Void trilogy.

In Great North Road, a member of the prominent North family is found murdered, in the same exact manner used as a previous North massacre twenty years prior. Angela Tramelo was convicted and has been in prison ever since–so who could have done it? Angela claimed twenty years ago that an alien monster was responsible, but no one believed her. Could there be a sentient species out there, hell-bent on wiping out the North family? The planet St. Libra, where the original murders took place, is key to the economy of Earth, and any threat is one that must be investigated. The Human Defense Agency launches a massive expedition to St. Libra, with the intention of finding and capturing the monster–that is if Angela Tramelo is telling the truth, and a monster actually exists.
Cover-Great-North-RoadMeanwhile, Detective Sid Hurst is investigating the North murder on Earth, and all the clues point not to a monster, but to a corporate struggle that turned deadly. As his investigation continues, Angela’s story seems less and less likely.

Angela is released from prison to join the St. Libra expedition, since she’s the only one to have survived an attack by the monster, but her every action is scrutinized and questioned. As the expedition searches for the monster, strange accidents begin causing injuries and deaths to their group, until even the planet itself seems to turn against them.

The novel is–first and foremost–a mystery set in a science fictional universe. The world-building is phenomenal, and it’s easy to believe that events on the pages are real, with a rich history behind them. Though long, the author does a nice job of filling in backgrounds, but without providing too much exposition; when used, it’s effective. Each character comes from a background that’s fully-fleshed. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the characters’ current incarnations; they never quite ascend to people we would want to be friends with. There’s some indefinable gap that truly prevents the characters from jumping out of the page, and feeling like they belong. Some may disagree with this assessment, but the characters never wowed me, the way some books have. Still, that’s not to say that Great North Road isn’t a good book, because it is. It’s just not a great book.

The book is long, and not just in sheer page count. At 976 pages, it’s a lengthy story, but it could easily have been told in a more condensed manner. Often times the reader is thrown back in time, to be given another tidbit of the story about one particular character, then returned to the present, where the revelations reveal just a little bit more about their motivations or actions. It gets a little tiring, especially as the book starts to reach its climax, only to be thrown back in time with a new revelation. None of the things that are revealed are cheap, or unnecessary, but the back-and-forth over a book of this length is wearying.

Even though it’s long, Hamilton does a good job of keeping readers interested. The pacing of the story is good, if methodical, and the end result, and resolution to the mystery is at least well-executed, if just a tad too far-fetched to have been worth the mystery to begin with.

For fans of a good mystery, Great North Road can be recommended, but for most casual readers, it’s probably not for you.

Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown

Book Review: The Circle

We live in an age of escalating surveillance–one in which personal privacy is increasingly rare, and more and more of our lives are shared publicly on the Internet. So perhaps it’s no surprise that The Circle, by Dave Eggers, takes things a few steps further with his novel, introducing us to a very Google-like company named The Circle, in which they are at the forefront of technology, with seemingly endless resources available to make their bold visions a reality. The Circle’s goal is to capture all human knowledge and make it available to the masses. But this type of all-encompassing information-gathering comes with a high cost.
Cover-The-Circle-by-Dave-EggersThe Circle focuses on Mae Holland, a newly-hired employee, as she begins her career with the technology company. It’s immediately obvious that The Circle is an analogy to modern-day Google, with its over-the-top benefits, campus-wide parties, and nearly anything employees could desire available to them–day or night. As Mae settles into her new position, she’s overwhelmed by how lucky she is to be part of this amazing group, especially after spending her first two years out of college working in a drab cubicle at a utility company in her tiny home town. She not only feels incredibly lucky to be part of The Circle, but somehow undeserving of the job. The first few chapters are a whirlwind of introductions to resources available on the campus, and to how much information the company collects–and expects their employees to contribute. At first, the comparisons to Google are obvious, but the novel quickly moves beyond even what Google currently provides, into a different level entirely. Oddly, this is both one of the novel’s strengths, as well as its weakness; as more and more statistics get introduced, it nearly overpowers the narrative of the story, becoming instead a list of social media “to-dos”, rather than a functional story.

Much of the book is spent introducing concept after concept; TrueYou, SeeChange, ChildTrack, SoulSearch, PastPerfect, Demoxie, and countless other names are thrown around, with each new program introducing increasingly pervasive levels of surveillance, until there’s no such thing as privacy any longer. Politicians are forced to wear cameras at all times, streaming their entire lives to the world, or face persecution for failing to do so. All of these programs are well-intentioned, but the ramifications of them are far-reaching and disturbing beyond measure. Indeed, a totalitarianism is hinted at, as politicians who voice criticisms of The Circle suddenly are found to have child-porn on their computers, or some skeleton in their closet–buried in their past–is suddenly uncovered, leading to their ruin. Perhaps these events are coincidental, but people seem to accept the explanations as fact. After all, The Circle is incapable of fault, right?

What makes this novel so intriguing isn’t the outlandish invasions of privacy that The Circle is able to obtain, but that Eggers paints a portrait of Orwellian society in-the-making–one that is all too believable, considering the current state of technology. Already, today’s Internet companies have extraordinary access to data, and the ramifications of this is just beginning to come to the public consciousness. The Circle takes current events just a little bit further, and serves as a cautionary tale to show what might happen if these companies’ aren’t reigned in before it’s too late.

Despite the intrigue, the novel does have its share of faults. The main character, Mae Holland is rather naive,and her idealism leads the reader to question her sanity from time to time. It’s often a frustrating read, to have the author point out more and more disturbing revelations, only to have Mae rationalize things and accept the latest egregious assaults against civil liberties. She seems forgetful of things that are rather crucial, and even cold-hearted as she turns her back on her past to embrace The Circle wholeheartedly. Eggers introduces so many concepts and spends so much time detailing how many ‘screens’ the characters use, that it sometimes feels like a diary of going to work each day–albeit at an amazingly generous company–to the point of feeling mundane. Entire plot points get left out, like the treatment of her father’s illness, and their lack of participation in the newest programs of The Circle. There are times it’s particularly unbelievable that society as a whole is embracing what The Circle has to offer, yet they seem to do so–in increasing numbers.

Despite its shortcomings, however, The Circle is a must-read novel, if only to highlight the strange nature of today’s society, and how the information we share can be used. Internet companies probably know more about us than we do ourselves, and the more we share, the more they learn about not only us, but our friends and loved-ones as well. It’s a thought-provoking adventure into a what-if future. It’s one of today’s 1984-style novels that should be read, discussed, and argued. After all, that’s what makes a good book transcend the genre and become a great book.

Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown

Book Review: The Long Earth

Legendary authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter team up for a new series, beginning with The Long Earth. In The Long Earth, a schematic for a seemingly simple device called a “Stepper” is posted online. Within hours children the world over are building their own Steppers, and “Stepping” into other Earths, extraordinarily similar to our own, with one exception–they’re empty of people. As humanity struggles to deal with this new reality, of what becomes called the Long Earth, in which there’s infinite land and resources, pioneers begin spreading across all of the new worlds, ready to begin new lives and establish their own communities. Meanwhile, Joshua Valiente, the most famous Stepper, is called upon by an unusual entity named Lobsang to journey to the ends of the Long Earth, for there’s something strange going on within the Long Earth–one that threatens to overtake humanity as we know it…

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Book Review: Reamde

In Reamde, author Neil Stephenson weaves a complex and harrowing story, which spans the globe, and seemingly every walk of life. From the boardrooms of Corporate America, to computer hacker lairs, to the Middle Eastern’s hatred of the United States–and beyond. Richard Forthrast is the head of Corporation 9592, maker of a wildly popular online game called T’Rain (pronounced like Terrain). Richard is fully embedded in the game world, and ensuring everything in it runs smoothly. But when his niece, Zula, goes missing, he embarks on an investigation to find out where she is, and see her safely returned home. His investigation leads him to some startling discoveries, and will challenge him in ways he never expected. Can he track down Zula’s abductors and ensure her survival? Will he survive the attempt?

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Book Review: Extremes

Extremes, book two of the Retrieval Artist series by Kristine Kathryn Rusch furthers the adventures of Miles Flint, and his former partner, Armstrong Police Detective Noelle DeRicci. In Extremes, DeRicci is sent to investigate a death on the course of the Moon Marathon. At first, it appears to be a simple case, but DeRicci quickly realizes that this death is anything but simple. Meanwhile, Miles Flint is settling into his life as a Retrieval Artist, and learning what cases he should–and shouldn’t–take. The former partners paths cross in the most unlikely of ways, but not before all of Armstrong is threatened with survival. Does Extremes live up to the promise laid out in The Disappeared, or does it fall tremendously flat?

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Book Review: The Disappeared

Good science fiction mysteries are a rare commodity these days. Few have been able to successfully combine the two genres into some semblance of a decent story. Kristine Kathryn Rusch bucks this trend with The Disappeared, the first of the Retrieval Artist series of books. First introduced in The Retrieval Artist and Other Stories, Miles Flint is a detective with the police force in Armstrong Dome on the Moon. When a series of seemingly unrelated cases appear, Flint quickly puts together the clues to determine just what these cases have in common. Sworn to uphold the law–despite his misgivings–Detective Flint must do everything in his power to ease his conscience, while staying within the strict guidelines of the law. Can he reconcile himself in these difficult circumstances, or will he be forced to bend–or even break–the laws he’s dedicated his career to?

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