Off the Bookshelf – Lord of Light, Kaiju Preservation, Empire’s Ruin, Shards of Earth, Thinking with Data

Summer 2022 is over, but the Nuketown summer reading list continues. I didn’t make as much progress on the list as I’d hoped this summer. I never quite got into that morning walk & audio book routine, nor the morning coffee and print book routine, so progress was slow. I also only made it to the beach once this summer, which is usually good for knocking out a book (or most of a book).

By summer’s end, I’d read seven of the 17 books on my last, one of the five novellas, and four of the five graphic novels. Still, I did make some progress, and I’m continuing to work on the list as we head into the fall.

Lord of Light

My prior experience with Roger Zelazny was the Chronicles of Amber books, which were fun, fast, and witty reads that had some great turns of phrase and descriptive scenes. Lord of Light (Amazon) is one of the giants of the fantasy genre and a touchstone for many creators … but its no Chronicles of Amber. The setup is sees Earth colonizing an alien world. The initial colonists set themselves up a gods, ruling over the humans who live there. An alien race – which humans call demons because of their incorporeal state – are banished and/or subjugated by the humans and their gods.

The gods themselves are taken from Hindu mythology, and a caste system is implemented. Reincarnation is made available to the masses through mind transfer technology. This opening line from the book sums things up nicely:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

The book spans thousands of years, and the narrative is quasi-biblical in its telling. Unlike Chronicles of Amber, which is told in the first person, Lord of Light is in the third person, and usually told as flashbacks or parables about the gods. The common thread is the protagonist Sam’s conflicts with his fellow gods, and his self-appointed mission to accelerate humanity’s technological progress.

It’s a good book, but it can be a confusing read as you try and keep track of the changing names (Sam goes by several) and frequent time jumps. All the threads come together in the end, making for a satisfying read, but it required good deal of concentration and focus. I recommend reading it . .. but be sure to give yourself plenty of time.

Kaiju Preservation Society

At the opposite end of the literary spectrum is John Scalzi’s Kaiju Preservation Society (Amazon). It’s a self-admitted popcorn book – a quick, easy summer read about giant monsters (the aforementioned kaiju) who inhabit an alternative Earth. The boundary between that realm and ours is thinned by nuclear energies (reactors, explosions) and the Society’s goals is to watch the thin spots and protect kaiju from those who would exploit them. Preventing a Godzilla-like super beast from devouring random cities is another important goal.

The book’s afterward is worth a read – in it, Scalzi recounts his challenges writing during the early days of the pandemic as well as his own dark headspace after the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. capitol. It’s an honest accounting of experiences that many of us shared.

The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne)

In Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, Brian Staveley wrote an epic (and epically grim) tale about three royal siblings trying to save their father’s empire. It ends in death, betrayal and disaster, but humanity is saved from certain doom. The Empire’s Ruin (Amazon) picks up where the previous series left off, and I have to say, it’s even grimmer than its predecessor. So much so that in the depths of winter, when life was already at its most stressful thanks to work, family, and volunteering … I had to put it aside.

I picked it up again for my summer reading list, and I’m glad I did. The book, while still desperate, bends on a some what brighter arc over the course of its telling. Knowing Staveley, things will still be desperate, and there will be terrible prices to pay in the next book … but I enjoyed the read.

Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture)

Last summer, I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin, which were sweeping stories of evolution and first contact told against a scale of generations. Shards of Earth (Amazon) is told on a more intimate time frame, but with even greater stakes. As the book opens, we learned that Earth is no more, destroyed decades earlier by moon-sized entities known as Architects. For reasons unknown to anyone, these immense beings sought out civilized worlds and transformed them into horrifically beautiful sculptures wrought on a planetary scale.

Thankfully, humans and their alien allies were able to drive off the Architects, not with conventional weapons – though they tried – but with psionic humans. These humans made contact with one of the Architects, and made it aware that there were sentient creatures on the planets it intended to destroy. The thinking was this caused the Architects to leave sapient space.

The book focuses on the crew of the interstellar tug boat led by a benevolent captain named Rolo, and navigated by Idris, one of the surviving psionic humans. The tug’s crew is the hodgepodge you expect to find in a post-Firefly world though more species diverse: there’s a human who engineered around their physical handicaps through the use of drones and power armor, a collective insect-like intelligence called Hivers, and a crab-like alien with a penchant for advertising on its shells and claws. There’s also Solace, a member of a genetically-engineered offshoot of humanity dedicated to protecting the species from all possible threats.

And, of course, a number of those threats appear over the course of the book, beginning with a horrific find in deep space.

Tchaikovsky doesn’t pull many punches in this book. While the body count isn’t nearly as high as say, your average Song of Fire and Ice book, he offs characters at unexpected times. It raises the stakes, and keeps the reader on edge.

Thinking with Data

Thinking with Data by Max Shron (Amazon) is a great introductory book on data analytics. It discusses how to craft the correct scope for the thing you’re trying to answer. It then delves into arguments, patterns of reasoning, and causality, all supported by multiple real-world use cases. It’s a great little book, and one I’d like my data analytics team at work to read. The team is a mix of technical and non-technical people, and I think it would help give folks a shared context and terminology for our analytics discussions.

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Cover art from Shards of Earth (The Final Architecture). Credit: Orbit


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