Off the Bookshelf: Existence, Newton’s Wake, Mistborn

I made a serious dent in my Summer 2012 Reading List, but as always a few books carried forward, and a few others dropped off as we moved into fall. One book I carried forward was David Brin’s Existance, a novel of first contact that occasionally gets too preachy for its own good. Summer book The Way of Kings led me to try Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which is about a truly epic fantasy heist. Finally, there’s Ken MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera, a book that’s more 24th century transhumanism than space opera, but still a worthwhile read.


In 1990 David Brin wrote a novel called Earth, in which a micro blackhole falls to the center of the planet and causes all manner of havoc. In 2012 Brin returned to terrestrial fiction with Existence, a novel of first content between humanity and an alien relic. The underlying tech in each book doesn’t really matter — they’re essentially McGuffins that Brin uses to construct a world around so he can riff on his pet peeves and personal causes.

In Earth it was about the aging of the population, the depletion of natural resources, and the lost of the dream of space exploration. In Existence is the precautionary principle, social warfare, the commericalization of information and technology. The plot of each book felt secondary to the future vision that Brin was trying to create; it’s as though 2001 only cared about space hotels and commerical space flight; never mind that alien relic found on the moon.

This isn’t to say that the black holes in Earth and the relic in Existence don’t impact their worlds — they do — but the point here isn’t to create a compelling story, it’s to provide a lecturn for Brin’s myriad opinions. Frankly, the problem is that Brin spends way, way too much time telling and not enough showing. He has talking head surragates lecturing us about the dangerous of broadcasting our existance to the galaxy at large while simultaneously ignoring his own plot. Even more annoying is the endless parade of historical events he never explains and a proliferation of technogadgets that would give Star Trek a run for its money. Brin is trying to give us a rich, frazzled future that combines equal parts glitz and disaster, but it feels superficial. He never delves deeply enough into any given topic to give us a true sense of depth.

This is not Brin at his best. He’s tackled similar topics before — the dangers of alerting the galaxy to our presence are expertly handled in the Uplift books — but I think he’s trying to tackle too much in one book. I haven’t given up on Existence, but I am taking a break from it.

The Final Empire: Mistborn, Book 1

I first heard of Mistborn when it was announced that Brandon Sanderson was going to be finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. It quickly slipped my mind, until it popped up again with the release of the role-playing game based on the novels. That, combined with having read Sanderson’s work on The Wheel of Time and his own The Way of Kings, led me to revisit the series.

It’s urban fantasy, which isn’t normally my cup of tea. It’s why I haven’t read much of China Melville’s stuff nor the popular Dresden Files, but I loved how Sanderson once again created his own magic system, with its own rules, and ran with it. The protagonists of Sanderson’s book are allomancers — they injest metallic solutions (e.g. pewter, tin, brass) and then “burn” it to gain supernatural powers. For example, burning tin heightens an allomancer’s senses, while pewter enhances physical strength.

A cool magic system only gets you so far. What made the book a compelling read is that it’s basically a fantastical version of Ocean’s Eleven, with a kingdom as the prize to be stolen. A thousand years before the book begins a mythic hero rises to save the world and is granted divine power. Afterwards though, things go horribly wrong: the savior becomes the tyranical “Lord Ruler” who imposes his will over the entire world with his “Final Empire”.

Rebellions have sought to overthrow this dictator for centuries, but failed because they were never organized enough. Enter Kelsier, a master thief and allomancer who hates the Lord Ruler for killing his lover and imprisoning him in the Pits of Hathsin. Upon escaping he decides to get his revenge against the tyrant by killing him and bringing down his empire in the process.

Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera

I enjoyed Ken MacLeod’s novel Learning the World, which is about first contact between an entrepreneurial huamn starship and an alien race and I’ve been looking forward to trying some of his other books. Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera isn’t quite what I was expecting. The book’s title would lead you to believe the book would be about galactic empires waging war against alien invaders, with battleships exchanging laser blasts and nuclear torpedoes, but it’s more a book about transhumanism.

The book is set in the 24th century; Earth has been ravaged by a “hard rapture”, in which military AI became truly intelligent, assimilated millions of humans, and killed billions more. The survivors have spread to the stars, united by a “skein” — a series of linked wormholes controlled by the Carlyle, a Scottish clan. Lucinda Carlyle is part of this group of entreprenuers/enforces/thugs, serving as a combat archeologist who discovers a lost human world and an posthuman artifact of tremendous power.

In some ways, it’s a book of first contact, in which a variety of human factions rediscover one another … and inadvertantly trigger the rebirth of a horde of war machines. It’s a good read — while it hasn’t quite scratched the space opera itch in the way I’d hoped, it offered a solid transhuman story.