Review: Brown Girl In The Ring

“Brown Girl in the Ring ” in great book by Nalo Hopkinson.  This book is unapologetically Toronto-centric (and very Canadian).

The best way to describe it is to say it is a complete mashup of dystopian “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the Afro-Caribbean “The Serpent and the Rainbow” with a little magical realism of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” thrown in.

I loved this book.  It takes place in the not-too-distant future where the central core of Toronto is closed off and let to fend for itself – meaning infrastructure such as water, sewer, power, 911 services and basic human needs are shut down.  The outer ring is wealthy and closed off the mostly Caribbean and easter European.

The main character is a young woman with a child who lives with her magical/healer/shaman/nurse grandmother.  She helps her grandmother care for the local sick with a combination of homeopathic and traditional medicine.  Her nemesis lives is a powerful man with a “zombie” for a maid and a posse of criminals.  He is tasked but the outside Premier of Ontario to get her a heart from some unwitting habitants of the Toronto core.

Through a lot of Vodou and spiritual incidents the book climaxes in the warlord’s lair, the CN Tower.  Very cool!


Review: Flashforward

Flashforward 1999 was written by Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer.  When I picked it up yesterday, I only knew that the author was Canadian and that it was Sci-Fi.  As I started reading I realized it took place in 2009, but was confused by a reference to Windows 2009 operating system (Vista?).  Then I checked the cover, and realized it was written in 1999.

The idea behind the book is quite interesting.  In 2009 at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the search for the Higgs boson (God Particle) caused a 2 minute flash forward.  This flash forward enabled every human on earth to see through the eyes of their future selves for 2 minutes.  Those who were dead or asleep did not get to see anything.  The fallout of seeing yourself 21 years in the future caused much concern and some good changes.  For example, after seeing that there was no point in fighting, India and Pakistan came to a peace agreement.

The lead scientist behind the experiment, Lloyd Simcoe believes, and shared his belief that, the future is fixed and absolutely determined.  His junior scientist, Theo Procopides, discovers that his brother kills himself after realizing his artistic dreams do not come true and will work at a restaurant in the future.  This leaves both scientists to concede that the future is not fixed or the brother would not have had a future vision.

This book has a lot of Canadian references and the lead scientist, Lloyd, is Canadian.  I particularly love the note about Presidents Choice brand not being Prime Ministers Choice at the local supermarket.

This is a fun book and I loved reading it.  I am going to find other by this author.  Oh, and I also discovered that this book was made into a TV show of the same name last year.  Perhaps I will see if I can find it in re-runs!


Review: The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine by William Gibson (Canadian) and Bruce Sterling (American) is a fictional account of the evolution of Charles Babbage’s theorized difference engine (mechanical calculator using decimal units).

The concept is a “what-if” scenario postulating what would happen, if during the Victorian era, Babbage’s machine not only worked, but was a fully functional computer.  A full century ahead of its time, the engine required huge power and space requirements and used hard punch cards much like the mainframes of the ’60s.

It really is an epic book that would easily introduce the uninitiated to the “steampunk” genre.  I love the idea of steampunk where modern-day gadgets (phones, computers, LCD Projectors) have been invented and created using Victorian technology (i.e. steam power).

The book follows three distinct characters:  Sybil Gerard, Edward Mallory and Laurence Oliphant.

Sybil, is a daughter of disgraced Luddite leader who was opposed to the mechanization of England.  She was reduced to surviving by becoming a courtesan.  England has become a meritocracy where technological “savants” rule.  Sybil teams up with a swashbuckling “adventurer” who passes some very secret punch-cards to her before his untimely death.

Not much of heard from her through the rest of the book.  Instead, we follow Dr. Edward “Leviathan” Mallory for the bulk of the story.  He is a paleontologist who well-known for his dinosaur finds in the Dakotas.  Teaming up with Laurence Oliphant, they try to track down the culprit who is both trying to destroy Dr. Mallory’s life and reputation, as well as, stirring up class riots within London.

The punch-cards and the code they represent, do not actually reveal themselves throughout the book.

There is an implied idea that the code that within the cards Sybil had, created a self-referencial (I would say virus) program in the French Difference Engines that, when flash forward to 1991, created a “sky-net” like society of digitized humans run by the all-seeing “eye”.

I really wanted to love this book, but boy was the ending unsatisfying.  I did enjoy much of the journey. What is was wondering was, except for a brief meeting of Sybil and Laurence at a cafe in Paris at the end, what purpose did Sybil serve?  I found the book was pieced together in 3 parts (Sybil/Dr. Mallory/1991)  and the two bookends were way too short without much integration into the main plot.

I think one must read this if you want to understand the whole steampunk canon, but be prepared for a little disappointment.