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The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin September 4, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Books, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff.
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The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin is another beautiful exploration of the enslavement of talented beings at the hands of merciless monsters, the (frightened) merely human.  The talented beings are oregens, who have the instinctive ability to use the energy of the earth in many often destructive ways. Usually they are killed like witches, but an empire made them slaves instead, to quell earthquakes and volcanoes. Usually successful, oregens nevertheless sometimes failed to keep Father Earth from causing volcanic winters, or Seasons.  This book is about one of them, and how it came about as a direct result of slavery.

It’s a damned good read (or listen, in the case of the link above), filled with pathos and sympathy for the abused and the foolish, and understanding of the wronged. It is thematically nuanced enough that you forget you are reading a polemic against slavery. In this sense it is very similar to N. K. Jemisin’s first book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (lovingly reviewed by me earlier), which also got a boatload of award nominations (Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree and Sense of Gender). Given her astounding writing it is hardly surprising that The Fifth Season was nominated for Nebula and won the Hugo last year.

This is a trilogy, and you will buy into the main character so thoroughly you will pay for the next two books, so the commitment-phobic among you should probably stay away.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi August 3, 2016

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The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi is a fun little novel of theft, betrayal, cleverness and impossible physics which brazenly attempts to disguise itself as science fiction.  Too advanced; it has to be magic.
Well, there is a Martian city that migrates run by captive human brains (in electronic bodies; apparently perfect copies of one’s self can be made in this future), shape-shifting people and spaceships, memory bullets (not ones that remember shapes, but more like computer viruses for mind and smart matter). Nothing impossible about that at all, no sir. There is a quantum prison in which the prisoners all play Prisoner’s Dilemma with guns instead of money inside a computer simulation, wherein these perfect copies of people play each other. Insane torture, sure, but certainly possible, right? Uh huh. There is the thief, rescued from this prison by the aforementioned shape-shifting person and ship, agents of a goddess interested in stealing…something. I kind of forget what the McGuffin is because of all the pretty shiny futuristic stuff going on in the impossible far future—it’s very distracting.

The focus on future tech didn’t make anyone else unhappy, though; Hannu Rajaniemi sold a trilogy’s worth of books, of which TQT is just the first. Honestly, I liked it enough to at least look for the second one.

Fluke, by Christopher Moore August 1, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Books, Brilliant words, Mutants, Science.
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Fluke, by Christpher Moore, is another hilarious tale of a, well, tail, specifically the fluke of a humpback with the words “Bite me” on its fluke. The first person to witness this unusual coloration is Nathan Quinn, a whale biologist with a great fascination with whale song.  He and his terminally cute but too young-for-him research pixie Amy Earhart photograph the whale in the course of research… and the frame of film containing it goes missing.  And his sound recordings.  And his boat. And, finally, him.  He is pursued by his colleague and photographer Clay, Clay’s mean sex-fiend schoolteacher girlfriend Claire, a surfer-Rastafarian hybrid named Kona1 (nee Brad Thompson or something not very Jamaican, Hawaiian or surfish, but more New Jerseyish) and The Old Broad who funds them and who insisted that the whale called her to tell him to bring him a pastrami sandwich.

Much funnier when he tells it, of course; Moore’s signature humor is gentle and mocking  and wry and just silly sometimes. Basically, I would die to be a tenth as funny at any time.  Fluke had me laughing in crowded doctor’s waiting rooms.

Available on Amazon, naturally, but I got mine at sfpl.org.

WARNING: contains some actual science.  Does not detract from the story in the slightest.

1Kona refers to the research pixie as “the snowy biscuit”, for her fair complexion and, well, biscuitness

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi July 17, 2016

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The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi, is one scary piece of fiction featuring all the violence, desperation and hopelessness that any person should ever be exposed to in fiction.  This tale of the possible future (not actually science fiction, I hasten to point out, just speculating on what happens with the logical extension of our attitude towards water, land, money and each other) where the Colorado continues to dry up and states fight for water rights—to the point of excluding US citizens from moving from one state to another (using guns.  Did I mention the guns?) is pure Bacigalupi in its stark descriptions of privation, threats, torture and murder for profit on a large scale.  Very much not safe for children, as there are gruesome depictions of torture, murder and fairly explicit depictions of sex…and foul language.

That said, the characters are detailed and believable, the action scenes are briskly paced, the villains are monsters and a lot of people fall into the gray areas of morality, mostly driven by fear.  Fear is the main character in this book, touching the lives of everyone except the worst monster (no spoilers).

I like and recommend The Water Knife.  It’s gripping, if you can stand the horror of the world Paolo Bacigalupi creates.  More terrible than The Windup Girl for sure, but no less fascinating.

Link above goes to Amazon, but it should be in your local library or borrowable therefrom by inter-library loan (ask your librarian).

The Daedalus Incident, by Michael Martinez July 8, 2016

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The Daedalus Incident, by Michael Martinez is a strange  mixture of steampunk and, uh, standard science fiction.1 A series of quakes on tectonically-dead Mars has led a number of scientists to risk their lives to understand what is really going on. “The only clues they have stem from the emissions of a mysterious blue radiation, and a 300-year-old journal that is writing itself.”–from Amazon’s site.  As a science geek I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised to find Cherenkov radiation featured as a clue.

Well, the steampunk part is that a parallel universe is bumping up against ours produces Cherenkov radiation..you can see where that could lead.  In the parallel universe, alchemy is used to float wooden ships through the Void between worlds (all inhabited) in a Victorian era that seems to have lasted well into the 21st century.  This puts me in mind of an hilarious game that I never purchased for myself in 1989 when I damned sure should have, Space:1889. And, I swear the whole plot setup in Daedalus Incident is predicated on this ridiculous game, substituting alchemy for Edison’s aether propeller.

Well, there is action and romance in both universes, with villains and heroes (and damsels who take up fencing), loss and redemption—standard action/adventure stuff, the bubblegum of the mind.

Link goes to Amazon, but this is at sfpl.org as well as are the follow-on novels (I think there are four right now).

____________

1 Is there such a thing?

The Red, by Linda Nagata July 7, 2016

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The Red, by Linda Nagata held my interest well enough that I also listened to The Trials, the concluding (?) book in this story. Of the two, I think I liked The Red better, since the story arc seemed more complete and satisfying in and of itself.

Lieutenant James Shelley, US Army is part of a Linked Combat Squad which is just what it sounds like: an Army unit with excellent communications in three forms: a radio linkage to each other (GenCom), a video linkage to an overhead drone (an Angel), and a linkage to a handler (Control).  The individual soldier is also equipped with armor and an exoskeleton (either referred to as “armor and bones” or “dead sister”) and an “emotional prosthesis”, a skullcap which keeps mood swings in check.

Nice killing machines, you think? Not so much.  Our hero and his squaddies seem to be nice folks, just regular Joes (and Janes) in a rough business. There’s a bit of backstory for our hero but much less for the other characters, which does keep the narrative as tight as it needs to be, since this is an action tale after all.

This is probably interesting enough setup for several novels-worth of tales, but this particular one deals with a third sci-fi trope that is really interesting.  Shelley is infrequently given to having strong feelings in tactical situations that seem entirely incongruous with known operational parameters—he has hunches, and plays them. 

And they are always right. 

The source of these hunches are the crux of this novel. I must say I found the idea which explains it in the book is the most whimsical possibility I could have imagined, and brings me great delight when I think of it.

Good action, fair character development and a breezy pace (considering) make a good audiobook, competently read.

 

Exciting update: This is part of a trilogy. Great; now I have to listen to another one.

The Short Drop, by Matthew FitzSimmons July 1, 2016

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The Short Drop is a chilling little novella about corruption, featuring all the violence and evil you could ever want in an audiobook.  The lives wrecked by (other’s) corruption are offered redemption at a fearful price: knowledge of the whole, sordid story. The learning is, of course, a horror story itself involving all manner of evil including a Army sniper turned serial killer, a corrupt vice-president of the USA, old money with older ambitions and a pair of very good hackers in a duel.

Good characterizations of people with very bad problems written in a lively tone, but painful to see the realization of evil marching toward the denouement. It’s like a whole Greek chorus coming to your house to sing you a lullaby that lasts all night.

Ouch.

Good actioner, with some very likeable characters.1 The main bad guy is surprisingly uninteresting, though; it seems that the love of power is so common in both history and current events that I find the bad guy really repulsive…and dull.

Donald Trump will not get my votes2, for sure.

OK, this is pretty depressing.  Here is a consoling kitten (mine). Notice the cute paws: IMG_20150703_232339

1Besides the evil guys. Hey, what can I say?  I like well-written bad guys.

2Vote early, and vote often.

Nexus, Crux and Apex, by Ramez Naam July 1, 2016

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Books, Brilliant words, Geek Stuff, Star Trek Technology.
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These three novels are among the most interesting science fiction novels I have come across in some time..Lovingly detailed descriptions of the brain-nanoparticle operating system (Nexus) that allow people to hack their own brains, regulating mood, compelling actions and desires and enabling communication mind-to-mind seem plausible (after you swallow the sufficiently-advanced-technology bits) enough to support a tale of personal discovery by the author of the OS as he winds between the US government, Chinese spies, Thai drug lords and showdowns with the US government and a singularity’s intelligence. A good actioner, the story will compel your attention through all three books and make you wish for a different ending to the last one, for sure.

Highly recommended.  The links above go to Amazon, but are available at sfpl.org.

Afterworlds, by Scott Westerfeld June 14, 2016

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Afterworlds, by Scott Westerfeld is a strange amalgam of a book.  It’s half a story of a young writer come to New York to write on the strength of her first YA novel and half the story she wrote, featuring a young girl who escapes terrorist attacks at her local airport by pretending to be dead…a little too convincingly.  She finds herself in a sort of between life and death world, from which she is (eventually) able to come and go as she pleases.

The book seesaws between the mundane business of publishing (I am sure no first-time writer has it as easy as she does) and the horror-suspense of the Afterworld in a way that is surprisingly well balanced; each chapter moves the story along a little ways, sometimes in a connected way, mostly not. This is not as jarring a transition as you might imagine: Westerfeld is an excellent writer, and the character of each of the two protagonists is well-developed enough that you hardly notice how slow the book really is.

That was intended as praise.  I like a book I can linger over.

The link above goes to amazon; I got my copy at the local library.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi June 2, 2016

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Redshirts, by John Scalzi is a fun little read featuring a suspiciously Star Trek-like ship’s enlisted personnel dying with frightening frequency on planet-bound missions. The “new kids” notice this and the real fun begins; they try to figure out why and how this is happening.

Well performed by Wil Wheaton (whose annoying character really should have gone on more away missions), this book deals really nicely with sci-fi tropes we know and love, and old TV shows we love irrationally.  Wil’s reading is a source of great entertainment for me, as he always seems to put the right amount of astonishment into the voice of his unfortunate character’s mouth.

Link goes to Amazon; also available at sfpl.org.

 

Not related, but related.

Soon I Will be Invincible, by Austin Grossman June 2, 2016

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OK; I have never reviewed a superhero novel, possibly because I didn’t think there were such things. This is one, however. As impossible as this is, it is also a literary comic book, filled with various heroes with strange origin stories (like the sad, immortal faerie with hardly any forests left to sustain her), and a villain created in the moment of the main heroes’ creation.

This is more than a simple comic book without pictures; there’s actual pathos here, where the half-human half-robot girl (who weighs in at about a half-ton of steel and titanium) really wants to get laid and knows that’s never going to happen.

The villain is just a super-smart guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wanted the hero’s girl pretty badly when they were school kids together.  It’s very fun to listen in on HIS thoughts, I promise you.

Oh, and he does become invincible.  So there’s kind of a challenge for the heroes there, when he decides to plunge the Earth into a new ice age.

Pretty fun.  Link goes to Amazon, but I can’t remember where I got the book, so it’s probably available at sfpl.org and other public libraries. Or maybe your local comics store.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld June 1, 2016

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Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld is a cute little steampunk novel set (largely) on board a living blimp run by the Victorian English (“Darwinists”) about to run afoul of the dastardly, mechanically-inclined Hun (“Clankers”). Both sides weapons are drawn in a WWI epic (this series runs to three novels) that features heroism, pluck and improvisation by the adolescent FEMALE protagonist, nobility but naiveté in the male protagonist and lovely action, drama and romance all around.  Great fun, especially the complex business of running a living airship made by DNA (“life strands”) editing and running steam-powered robots through heavily-forested areas. Well-drawn characters make this a nice audiobook (and the other two, Goliath and Behemoth) to listen to on a long drive. The narrator’s voice covers a very wide range of characters convincingly. I was very entertained.

Nicely done all around.  Links above go to Amazon; of course available at sfpl.org, and other public libraries no doubt.

Armada, by Ernest Cline June 1, 2016

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Armada, by Ernest Cline is an excellent book for a really, really long, horrible weekend moving trip.  Especially if you have to make TWO trips because U-Haul screws you over by fraudulently renting you the smaller trailer, incidentally costing you a day’s pay and an extra hundred bucks in cash.  And my air conditioning died on Memorial Day weekend on the very hot drive through the valley (100F +).

I’m not bitter.  I would not want you to think that.

Armada is another of those well-loved (read: clichéd) sci-fi tropes wherein an adolescent boy (always an adolescent boy; never a girl, never a grown man or woman) daydreams about space dogfights and excels at videogames of that type, especially one game wherein he is high scorer. I believe the best-known version of this is The Last Starfighter (link goes to a special four-movie deal: Flash Gordon, The Last Starfighter, Battlestar Galactica and Dune for eight bucks which is actually pretty good). Our Hero is recruited by defense agency to fight the faceless monsters at the last minute to save Earth from destruction at the hands of an implacable  and seemingly invincible foe.

This could be pretty trite in the hands of some but Ernest Cline manages, by exposing the trope to scrutiny and skepticism within the novel, to extract a dramatic story line from it, and imbue the story with a kind of realistic humor which I found very stress-relieving.  And then there’s Wil Wheaton, who read each sentence with enough emotional clarity that I found myself laughing and crying along with Our Hero, the video game geek (note: this features an intragalactic war, so characters you like are gonna get snuffed).  Good job, Wil.

The link at the top of the page goes to Amazon, but the audiobook is available at sfpl.org and probably your own local library.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline May 25, 2016

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Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline is a nice little novel which has generated a lot of talk in the blogosphere among people younger than myself—those who were teenagers in the late eighties, I suspect. This navel-gazing into the solipsistic past doesn’t do much for me as I am from the wrong era but the novel itself, when stripped of egregious references to pop culture, it is actually a strange kind of action tale taking place mostly in the dystopian (of course) future.  The action is largely game puzzles solved in a competition in a VR space that has kind of subsumed the real world, but there’s some real-world danger and people meeting in meatspace as well.

Yep, a standard, formulaic quest-type action novel.  Why the blogosphere love? One, Ernest Cline’s use of dialogue and description.  He’s no slacker and it shows. Two (and I think this resonates with everyone who has “read” it), it’s read in the audiobook by Wil Wheaton.

Wil made it for me.  His reading is just about perfect in nuance, pace and sardonic timing.  His acting chops have only gotten much better with age (although really, he wasn’t given much to work with as Wesley Crusher now, was he?).1

Anyway, I enjoyed it during my commute (I should mention than I’m behind in writing about books since renovating my house but Fear Not! I shall catch up eventually) last year when I still did commute. Wil has also read Redshirts by John Scalzi and another Ernest Cline novel Armada, which I just started.  Don’t worry; I will review them both eventually.2

I do recommend this as your usual scifi stuff.  Popcorn need not be a bad thing, after all. It’s not all Neal Stephenson, is it?

___________

1 No.  He wasn’t. I give him full credit for quitting; that took some cajones for a kid in the meat grinder of television.

2 Be afraid.

Wicked Appetite, by Janet Evanovich July 14, 2015

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Wicked Appetite, by Janet Evanovich is a funny little story of inherited talents (ability to find magic gizmos and enhanced muffinry, for particular examples), magic talismans, dangerous magicians and distractingly handsome men combining to throw our fearful[0] protagonist Lizzie Tucker into a maelstrom of magic. Also, there’s a fruitcake with a sword[1].

An evil magician[3] seeks Lizzie’s peculiar talent (the location one, not the muffin one) to find seven stone embodying the Seven Deadly Sins[tm], which will allow him to unleash Hell On Earth[tm].  Lizzie doesn’t think that a good idea, but evil magicians can be very persuasive[4].

She is saved from persuasion by Diesel, a kind of a beach bum lookin’ dude[5] with a certain weird charm and with inherited talents also, none of which involve muffins.  Lizzie and Diesel get their hands on the first part of the Gluttony stone, which hilariously derails normality by making everything about food, punishment or hoarding (depending on who has the thing).

Lizzie is helped by her friend Gloria and her discount book of spells, which also hilariously derail conversation.  For this part I strongly suggest the audiobook, so you can hear Lorelei King deliver gibberish.  I would pay full price for this audiobook for that alone.

The link above is to Amazon, but this is available at sfpl.org, where the cognoscenti get their books for free.

___

[0] She’s not the heroine type.

[1] He is, curiously enough, not the comic relief. He’s just nuts.

[3] Distractingly handsome; see above.

[4] See footnote 3, above.

[5] See footnote 3, above.  I begin to detect a pattern here.

10% Happier, by Dan Harris July 10, 2015

Posted by stuffilikenet in Awesome, Books, Brain, Brilliant words, Science.
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10% Happier, by Dan Harris is the story of ABS anchorman Dan Harris’ journey through Buddhism to mindfulness in the most torturous of routes: trial and error from Eckhard Tolle, Deepak Chopra and a host of what he calls affectionately “Jew-Bus”, Jewish people who have come to embrace Buddhist practices (Harris is Jewish).  In his guise of newsman he cheats his way into getting real answers to the deep mystery: how do you meditate, and why (he even got face time with the Dalai Lama along the way, which is not that easy).

The real juicy part of this book is not so much who he met or how he learned this or that thing, but his blow-by-blow account of his thoughts and reactions as he began learning meditation.  Especially interesting was his reaction to a ten-day Zen retreat of six-hour daily meditation, wherein he finally felt he “got it” and later the emotional outpouring he experience when meditating upon compassion for the first time.

The reason I loved this book is that his story resonates closely with my own, especially the embarrassing awareness of the banality of my own thoughts, the ease of distraction and the lack of rigor in focus or awareness of anything but the voice in my head.  That, and I’m hoping to get a little guidance on my own practice, and I think this book helped.

The link above goes to the Audible audiobook version, but it is also available at sfpl.org.  I do recommend the audiobook, as it is read by him and guarantees his nuances will not be misunderstood (c.f., “Jew-Bus”, above).

Audiobook Roundup July 6, 2015

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Some of my readers know I am renovating my house to rent and spend long days doing repetitive work like sanding and painting and minor repairs. Little of this involves thought, so I listen to audiobooks. I liked the ones I have been listening to, so here goes:

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey is the most horrible horror book I have read in a long long time. The things the UK Army does to a classroom full of children infected with the zombie parasite makes you wonder if the monsters are inside the fence instead of outside. This juicy little novel posits that the parasite involved in creating zombies is a strain Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (a fungus infects an ant, whereupon the insect becomes compelled to climb down to one of the lower leaves and clamp down with its mandibles until it dies. The fungus consumes the ant’s tissues — all except for the muscles controlling the mandibles — and grows inside of it. After a couple of weeks, the fungal spores fall to the ground to infect more ants. Ants infected by this particular fungus are often called “zombie ants.”), and the sciency-flavored horror is lovingly detailed and acted well by the narrator. Most highly recommended, and very depressing.

Exciting update: there is to be a movie made:

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman is likewise well-acted by its narrator, but is in another vein entirely. This novel (part three of the series and probably the last) follows the adventures of a skilled magician after banishment from Fillory (the lamb version of the lion Aslan’s Narnia). Unlike magicians of other books, this one grows up to be thirty-something, copes with his father’s death (natural causes–this ain’t J.K. Rowling), stops drinking, resurrects his dead girlfriend, kills a couple of gods and creates two new worlds.

I know this makes him sound like an overachiever, but Grossman tells it so well you just go with it. Spectacular use of language; most highly recommended, not depressing at all.

Exciting update: there is a TV series.  I would have learned this sooner, but I don’t watch TV (much. I have seen most of Person of Interest).

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is another horror book  read by him which is a real treat, as he is very good. The horror is that of a young boy haunted by an elemental spirit of some kind and is pretty terrifyingly brought to life. He has a couple of kindly neighbors who help him with this, and they seem pretty competent so far. One of them is eleven years old…although at one point the boy asks “How long have you been eleven?”

I’m not done with this one yet, but I like it already.

Thank You, Terry Pratchett March 14, 2015

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Thank you, Sir Terry, for countless hours of pleasure listening to your works.  I have enjoyed your work more than anyone’s except Will Durant. If there is an afterlife, I hope you are welcomed there with honor and love.

EDIT: That’s a cake, friends.

Housewife Assassin’s Handbook by Josie Brown February 23, 2015

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The Housewife Assassin’s Handbook was such a good idea for a short Saturday Night Live skit that I grabbed it, and enjoyed the quixotic juxtaposition of the two sacred callings (motherhood and murder).  I mean, how often do you see the two together as they should be? Not nearly often enough, it turns out: there are eight books in the series (eightSERIES?) and no, I’m not kidding.  No, not even a little:

The Housewife Assassin’s Killer Christmas Tips
The Housewife Assassin’s Relationship Survival Guide
The Housewife Assassin’s Vacation to Die For
The Housewife Assassin’s Recipes for Disaster
The Housewife Assassin’s Hollywood Scream Play
The Housewife Assassin’s Deadly Dossier

I do get it, based upon the first book.  It’s the perfect fantasy for any suburban mom: sexy(!) mom with time to kill(!!), a mystery or two, handsome men vying for her affections (complete with steamy sex scenes) and successful mothering of near-perfect children. 

You know, I could have bought the whole premise right up until then.

Cheap Complex Devices by John Sundman February 23, 2015

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Cheap Complex Devices is a lovely slap on the head by the wet fist of surrealism.  It is a frothy coffee-like concoction with tentacles sticking out of it, and they are made of licorice.  Mmmmm…licorice.  And it is the story of the first (two) book(s) written by intelligent machines and delightfully complex and confusing. Cheap Complex Devices makes your sanity sit up and take notice, your grip on reality double its fists and say "Come at me! I can dish it out, too!"

I do love a book which confounds my expectations, and Cheap Complex Devices delivers.