Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Three things to start with …

  2. No it’s not 50 Shades of Grey, but an indeterminate number of shades!

I actually read Shades of Grey last year, and have been meaning to post about it for ages. It’s one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read in many a year! Why don’t you read this book!? Indeed son#1 did on my recommendation, and he enjoyed it too!

I discovered Jasper Fforde a few years back. I was a looking for an author with clever and considered wit similar to Douglas Adams, and Fforde was highly recommended. I monstered my way through the excellent and fun Thursday Next series, followed by the equally excellent and fun Nursery Crime series. Not sci-fi per se, but cleverly imagined inventive alternative realities with great comedy too. I probably expected more of the same when I started Shades of Grey, but I couldn’t have been more wrong – a totally different string to Fforde’s already beautifully crafted bow!

Shades of Grey starts with that trick that I recently mentioned in my post on William Gibson’s The Peripheral. Thrown straight in at the deep end in a future with no introduction, I spent the first few chapters trying to work out what the hell was going on! Plenty was immediately recognizable and whilst nothing was fundamentally alien, nothing was quite right too! What events had led to this future and most importantly its new social structures? You never do find out exactly what cataclysmic “something that happened” in the past changed the world thus, but you do get various snippets anchored around the incremental outlawing of technology invented/created prior to a series of ever earlier periods with an implied dictatorial (albeit in the form of a “collective”) leadership and clear rules not to be broken. Most importantly you never find out what happened to alter humans in such a simple but profound way, though the result of that alteration is absolutely the heart of this future society! Forget -isms based on race, religion or sexual orientation, in this world it’s all about the now vastly limited set of colours that each individual can perceive and the social hierarchy that results. In a world in which nobody can seemingly see all, some colours are “higher” than others, “mixing” between particular colours a thing of scandal, and those who can see none the lowest of the low greys!

I’ve probably already said too much, so enough of the plot! The core characters are totally believable and very quickly you’re seeing this world through the eyes and experiences of the protagonist Eddie Russett. The ins-and-outs of daily life; love and hatred; discovery of at least some of the terrible truth. A year after reading it, my memory of that future world is still totally vivid as if I was really there, unlike the vast majority of the many books I’ve read since!

So my advice is for everybody to read Shades of Grey, but just to get you ready for the only disappointment – upon completion I of course rushed to see if Jasper Fforde had written any more books to follow it, only to discover hoards of disappointed readers! He fully intends to write a sequel, but given his other busy series, it simply hasn’t happened yet!

David VanDyke – The Eden Plague

Hmmm … so I’m in two minds about this book. Reckon I picked it up for free last summer when I was looking for books to take on holiday, probably owing to it showing up linked to some sort of dystopian theme. That said, as “book zero” in a longer Plague Wars series, it’s effectively a prequel and so in itself not really dystopian. That’s the not the reason behind my uncertainty though.

I’m not going to go into huge depth around the plot. Fundamentally it revolves around secret viral research, the curious outwardly positive impact of a particular virus, naturally the impact of that virus on the key characters, and latterly an attempted wider spread impact. The writing was well described, and rendered things effectively; the characters were believable; it moved at a good pace; but overall it fell into that trap of various things being just too convenient and easy, and people being too accepting. Then an epilog threw in a curve ball that actually turned me off further.

And hence the real measure of things – not badly written and well liked on Amazon, interesting enough for me to read it in quick order, but at the end I didn’t feel compelled to read the next book in the series and indeed haven’t moved onto that as my next book!

William Gibson – The Peripheral

Whilst I’ve read significantly more over the last year than I’d typically managed in years previous, I’m still mostly a quick-chapter-or-two-before-bed sort of reader. Hence, whilst most of the books I’ve read recently have been clever comedic sci-fi, they’ve been light enough for me to keep up whilst my brain shuts down for the day. When my pre-ordered copy of William Gibson’s new book, The Peripheral, was delivered to my Kindle upon release a while back I knew, from the experience of reading Neuromancer previously, it might be heavier going and wasn’t wrong!

There’s something about the sci-fi trick of dropping you into a new world without any introduction, and The Peripheral does it doubly so! I seriously struggled working out what was really going on in the first ten percent or so! A near future America with some level of identifiability with 3D printing and gaming and smartphones, but also new language to decode along with wounded vets bearing the side effects of some sort of human/machine haptic augmentation. Then an indeterminately future Britain with an even stranger mix of past, current (reality TV stardom) and future concepts. With the book jumping back and forth between the two, the linkage was not apparent!

I’m not going to lie … after a week or two I simply restarted and read it all again to make sure I’d got my head around it, before finally it all started to make “sense”! Shortly thereafter, just to make sure, Gibson dropped in a quick summary to make sure you were keeping up!

A shadowy technology via some dark server somehow allowing a network connection of sorts between the furthest future world and the nearer future world, providing effective informational time travel in both directions; an unwitting virtual witness to a murder in the furthest future via that; the ultimate in telepresence – the peripherals of the title being almost-human organic bodies in the furthest future world that allow remote users to connect and physically experience things over a network; the use of those peripherals to allow the protagonists from the near future world to experience the furthest future world; the impact of the furthest future world tinkering in the near future world’s economy; and ultimately the pursuit of the murderer.

One key concept is that at the moment somebody in the furthest future world first establishes new contact back in time, the timeline in the past effectively is forked just like a codebase, and what happens in that “stub” timeline thereafter is no longer linked to the main timeline thus avoiding paradoxes.

The pace continued to grow as relationships were formed and more was revealed, and I became more and more hooked and immersed. Ultimately though I was slightly disappointed when it was mostly wrapped up neatly in about a chapter’s worth, but that’s a criticism I level at many books.

But here’s the thing … it took concentration but as a result the story has “stuck” much better in my head resulting in a more enduring “memory” of the worlds I experienced. I’d struggle to recall in detail many of the lighter books I’ve read, even though they slipped by more easily. Gibson is a master of this style of sci-fi, and my intention now is to read his other books that I’ve not read between his first (Neuromancer) and this his most recent. Overall The Peripheral is a highly recommended read!

Albums wot I woz rather excited about but …

At the end of last year I posted about three albums coming out in the first few months of 2015 that I was really excited about. They are all out now, but I was just reflecting on the fact that actually I ended frankly “meh” about all three of them! None of them are bad albums, but they’re not standout albums either. The word “solid” mostly applies!

I tend to judge albums by whether they’ve multiple tracks that I want to listen to individually on repeat, and whether I can listen to the whole album on repeat for days, or weeks, or even months, and not get bored. A great example is my favourite album from last year, Spires – The Whisper, that I’m still listening to regularly now and still loving!

My summary review of these three anticipated albums would be …

  • Beardfish – +4626-COMFORTZONE – something of a backward step to the more traditional prog of earlier Beardfish. Personally I enjoyed the step forward and heavier vibe on their previous album The Void, but that’s all but forgotten with this album. Few contemporary bands are better at doing traditional prog than them, but no tracks grab me particularly.
  • Sylosis – Dormant Heart – pretty much more of the same from Sylosis. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but there’s nothing particularly exciting on the album. No “wow” riffs or solos, just consistently technically well executed metal. I’ll still go and see them live when they tour the album later in the year though!
  • Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. – a slightly more positive response for this one, but again nothing that really stands out of me. I totally loved Steve’s previous album The Raven That Refused to Sing, and there were some bits that I could listen to for hours. For example, Drive Home is one of the most achingly beautiful songs ever, and its EBow-esque (actually a Sustainiac pickup) guitar solo is an eyes-closed few minutes of musical overload, that I’ve played numerous times. Nothing on Hand. Cannot. Erase. has that staying power!

Oh well! I have found some absolutely corking albums this year in lieu of the above though, and I’ll post about those some time soon.

As if excuse is needed, here’s the beautiful Drive Home with its equally beautiful video! Watch it at full screen 1080P if you can!