What’s there to say, really? It’s the 4th book in a series. If you’ve started it and enjoy it, nothing I can say will get you to stop. If you hated it and stopped reading, what can I say that will get you to pick it up?
Ok there’s one possibility. Previously I had complained about not getting to know the villain enough in this saga. Well this time we get full on villain in the spotlight, even see some things from his perspective. So if that was bothering you, fear not such has been addressed now.
Otherwise… yeah it is the saga continued. Keep reading it. If your a college bound kid looking to bone up on your skills for the SAT, then get this book and a dictionary! (It could also be a drinking game with some nerdy friends where y’all play, “is it a real word or one made up.”)
Oh and if you were one of those who disliked the movie Independence Day (or similar alien invasion stories), then you definitely owe it to yourself to get to this book. Because this is when we finally get to watch the Alien vs Human battle royale and there are NONE of the usual tropes here. In fact one particular moment in this exact book is a straight repudiation of ID4.
(more in depth spoiler discussions below the fold)
Alright a couple of ground rules. First, I had started this book last year, then circumstances caused me to be unable to finish it until now. I’ll do my best to ensure my own faults don’t color the discussion. Second, I had heard from the author that book 2 was split into 2 books because of size. Once you read this one, that becomes even more apparent so to make things even more confusing, I’m going to refer to the books of the series as B1 (book #1), B2 and B4.
So yeah, I’ve been clamoring for several books now more insight into Blackie as a character and here we finally get it! It’s certainly better than nothing. The thing is… Blackie still doesn’t seem real (though more real than before). I don’t know for sure, but I think I know why.
See there’s this thing called “reinforcement” (which I have written on before). Basically it is where you add in little things reinforcing the character or dimensions of your world. Easiest examples would be movies/tv. Say you have a character who’s religious – let’s say Catholic. So you have that character always carrying a rosary with them so in scenes where the person’s in the background, you see the rosary in their hands or sticking out of a pocket. When the character walks by, you layer in the sound of them humming a hymn. Yes, big scenes where the character expresses their religion or talks about God remain a part of reinforcement but you also try to get the audiences’ brains to absorb the background details further supporting that character feature even if their conscious minds don’t grasp it at first.
Of course that’s movies and TV. Reinforcement is probably a bit easier on there because anything you want to include without being the focus you put out of focus (audience focus, not camera focus) in the camera frame. In books? Reinforcement is even harder. It’s hard for all story creators (I won’t deny that even I’ve had trouble with it in anything I’ve done) because it requires you to pay attention to things that are not SUPPOSED to be payed attention to. And with the written word, there’s no “background” to the camera frame to place stuff. That’s where I think Blackie continues to fail as a character. He is supposed to be almost like Lex Luthor in his pride and arrogance, but with some kind of feeling towards “the Church” (though by now, is it Catholic? Orthodox? Orange-Catholic?) but what those feelings are I don’t know. I certainly believe he feels love and respect for his mother (that was reinforced pretty well) but so much else behind his motivations is still not coming through. Heck I still can’t be totally sure if there was ever a real friendship between him and the protagonist or if from day 1 Blackie has just been using Meany like he uses everybody else. Were they just “work buddies” who got along, or was there something real there? Most of the book these two are spending time together, and we don’t even see much of an in-joke shared between them.
Just for comparison, while I can’t in good consciousness recommend the movie Talladega Nights to anyone, this one scene does demonstrate (in that way comedy can) what happens when friends turn enemies.
I kind of wanted a bit more of that between our hero and villain. We’re kind of told of a few moments where they slip back to being friends, but not shown any I can recall.
Probably the biggest flaw in the books is… “the more advance the technology, less distinguishable it is from metaphor”. (any ideas for naming this new law?) By this point there are times where it becomes very hard to tell what is supposed to be literal or figurative in the story. Let’s take 2 examples from the same chapter, #7 “King of Planets, Planet of Kings” (section 4). There is this sentence,
Within the field, as far as the eye could see, were white statues of men and women of many races…
Only later it is revealed that these are not exactly statues, but ACTUAL people, frozen in suspended animation with a method that leaves them looking like statues. That becomes very clear later on when revealed. Now here are two other parts from that same section.
…a slender figure in a bright green kimono came out…
…with a dignified slow gesture, her long red sleeve brushing the high grass…
Now that is the same character talked about in both spots with all the description of her dress. Was the kimono green bodied with red sleeves? (that’s possible with today’s dress) But this world has had “smart cloth” for awhile, and changing color would be easy enough for it. Did it change color for some reason? Is that a clue about the character’s motives or the meaning of the scene? Is it just an honest mistake by the author? There’s no way to tell – at all. One pick is just as good as any other and it can get frustrating in a few places to tell whether you are supposed to read something as literal or metaphorical. Thankfully NOT often, but enough times to throw one off. Probably the only one that bothered me the most is towards the end, whether the Montrose we saw was supposed to have been regrown around his human brain or one of the minis that had been seen previously (even the main one that was center stage in the previous scene). If there are still multiple Montrose running around, does that make his marriage polygamy or still monogamy? Ok, let’s just say there’s a lot of questions and implications from the story on Neptune & the 2nd alien.
Regardless one cannot argue that the author isn’t an adept wielder tropes. By now the pattern is obvious particularly with regards to plans. You know the “rule of plans” even if you’ve never thought about it. 1) If a plan is discussed on screen before execution, something will go very wrong with it (why? obviously because showing the audience the same thing twice is very boring) 2) If the plan is only discussed on screen after execution, it will have worked flawlessly (because then it’s exciting for the audience to piece things together). Multiple times through the story now, things will work where we’re told of Plan A, it’s then executed so it fails, at which point we then learn of Plan B which counted on Plan A failing which means it executed flawlessly.
If there’s any problem with this it’s that the predictability ends up working against itself. At some points in the story (particularly in this one) the audience will be entreated to a plan, and then nothing. While the obvious implication is that “everything worked as described, no need to bore you” the… rhythm of the book can lead to whiplash where the reader reads of the plan, then begins the next section eagerly looking for the twist, only to eventually realize that no, the plan succeeded. Then they feel a bit lost as they try to look back and reread the prior section with an adjusted paradigm looking for things they misread. I don’t have any suggested fixes off hand. If it was a musical score, you would put in a decline after the crescendo but that doesn’t quite translate to book writing.
The last complaint I had is that now in all 3 “books” the author has ended with a wedding or a romantic coupling of some kind. B1 worked great. B2 was pretty sweet. This one it felt a bit more shoehorned in AND a pale imitation of the B2 couple, I half wish the female had just been left out altogether (unless her role is more important in the future, she seemed to serve little purpose but for offstage plots).
All in all B2 still remains my favorite in the series because of its more numerous colorful and memorable characters. But B4 holds a special place now in my mind because of the interest questions it raises, and for pointing out some of the issues with AI that a lot of people seem to gloss over. One day I had just read a lot of depressing articles about how humans were probably going to die (or worse) because of inventing high functioning intelligence, and then later that day read the exact passage of the book that pointed out not even AIs can escape entropy (and… well there’s more to it). It was a strangely comforting moment in a depressing scene from a book about the end of the world. So even if not intended, I have to thank the author for that.
I also really liked the revelation that the argument Meany & Blackie have been having for so long (between life vs machine), is an argument greater powers in the galaxy have also been having. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that resolution plays out.