Archive for the 'Sci-Fi' Category

Firestar, City, Ancient Shores

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

Rather than tell you how far I’m behind on NaNoWriMo, I’ll try to catch up a tiny bit on my book reviews.

I picked up Firestar by Michael Flynn because I’d enjoyed The Wreck of The River of Stars so much. I was correspondingly disappointed in this earlier novel.

Our Heroine is a rich woman with a fear of asteroid strikes who decides to start her own space program. The subplots involve a shallow test pilot and his ambitious friends testing her experimental spacecraft, a bunch of schoolkids and their favorite teacher who’ve been bought out by her educational branch, and the general corporate goings-on of her extensive holdings. Although there’s plenty of plot and action, plus some teen angst, I didn’t feel like there was enough conflict or reader cookies to hold my attention. It’s a long novel that sprawls; I had the feeling, from some repetitive backstory references in the second half of the book, that it had been composed as several shorter stories.

City is a classic short-story series by Clifford D. Simak with a bonus short at the end. It reminded me a bit of When Late the Sweet Birds Sang, but it covers a longer time-frame in short out-takes. I thought “Huddling Place” had the most impact of the stories, and the last one the least, but they were all worth reading.

Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt reminded me, in terms of genre, of Sims by F. Paul Wilson—a novel I picked up for its sci-fi content but enjoyed for the modern-day, non-skiffy characters, plot, and writing. In Ancient Shores, a farmer digs up a yacht on his property in North Dakota; it’s ancient but perfectly preserved and composed of a strange, occasionally glowing, substance. His friend begins to investigate and gets involved with a woman chemist and a Sioux lawyer.

In the end, the main character doesn’t change much and the resolution is a deus ex machina—but an interesting one that makes real-world sense even though as a novel conclusion it was disappointing. The language was straightforward and the glimpses into the world of the title few and far between, but the novel still managed to convey a certain numinous feel. I recommend it, and I’ll be looking for more of his books.

Dread Empire’s Fall

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

This is going to be another one of those go-out-and-buy-it reviews. Dread Empire’s Fall: The Praxis and Dread Empire’s Fall: The Sundering are the beginning of a lovely space opera by Walter Jon Williams. There’s romance and inbred aristocracy and slow-motion space battles and of course a dread empire falling. I couldn’t put it down.

The dread empire has an intriguing philosophy I would have liked to see more of. It banned all those troublesome non-space-operatic technologies like immortality and artificial intelligence, leaving a familiar milieu that reminded me mostly of Lois McMaster Bujold (who, by the way, has another Chalion book out).

But in a good way. If you liked her space opera but want something with more of a bite, you’ll love Dread Empire’s Fall. (If you prefer her lighter moments, WJW has done some comic space opera, too—though you won’t find it here.) The next installment of the series is due out in November 2005. See his FAQ for the titles.

The Wreck of The River of Stars

Sunday, March 13th, 2005

I don’t have too much to say about Michael Flynn’s The Wreck of The River of Stars, besides that you should go out and read it, especially if you’re interested in personality typing. On the surface it’s a hard-sf tale of the wreck of the last great magnetic sailing vessel, written in a literary-mainstream style. That is, the omniscient narration gives away its own ending (as if the title hadn’t sufficed) and distances the reader from the crew to the point where they’re not dying fast enough.

That’s a little more quality literature than I signed up for, but the novel makes up for it all by being the world’s only SF Myers-Briggs puzzle. There are sixteen characters (give or take a few corpses) representing the sixteen types, and the reader gets to guess who’s who. Find out how your own special and unique personality helps doom a spaceship full of people to a tragic cold-equations end!

It may sound depressing, but it really was a great read. I highly recommend it. There’s more discussion of the novel and its Myers-Briggs types over at sffworld.

A Hole in Texas, Dead Lines

Saturday, January 1st, 2005

I read a couple of books that sounded like sci-fi on the flap, but turned out to be something else. A Hole in Texas by Herman Wouk sounded like an exciting tale of the Superconducting Supercollider and a sub-atomic space race with the Chinese, but it ended up being mainstream fiction. Is it just me, or are all mainstream novels about adultery at bottom?

It started out so well, too. Wouk does a great job of showing the business end of science–the funding, the rivalries, the power-plays, the government shutting down the SSC halfway through. It could have been sci-fi, but then the hunt for the Higgs boson decays into a mid-life crisis tour of Hollywood and Washington. Even though Our Hero is married to a gorgeous, intelligent woman, he has to attract the attentions of at least two other gorgeous, intelligent women. It’s a bit of overkill if you ask me; I’m assuming that mainstream readers identify with such handsome, successful adulterer-protagonists, but I didn’t.

But I knew Wouk was a mainstream writer. I was prepared to forgive the usual real-life filler. I was less willing to overlook the off-stage, hands-off solution of the scientific mystery. The resolution of the science plot just fell out of a satellite at the end of the book. There was no buildup, no pieces to put together, nothing. It was black-box science, as if the boson were just a prop for Our Hero to push around in between encounters with his women. It was believable, but it wasn’t science fiction.

Dead Lines by Greg Bear also failed to be sci-fi. A mysterious company comes out with a new kind of cell phone that transmits instantaneously, with no noise and no energy. It may sound like a sunny transhumanist tale, but the dark and scary tone lets you know right off that the second law of thermodynamics is not to be flaunted without dire spiritual consequences. The dead are restless, the businessman is soulless, and things go from bad to worse to Evil with a capital E.

It works fine as a horror story, but the science is never adequately explained. Some genius stuck a plug into the afterlife and all we see are effects, never the cause. I think Passage by Connie Willis is a far better mix of the supernatural and the scientific–it has all the spookiness, but with a believable explanation (at least before it jumps the shark). But if you like your horror with a veneer of sci-fi, give Dead Lines a try.

Antarctica, Bare-Faced Messiah

Sunday, October 10th, 2004

Neither of these books quite qualifies as science fiction, but they’re close enough for reviewing purposes. I picked up Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson for research purposes only. As an introduction to what can be done in near-future Antarctica fiction it was useful; as a novel it left something to be desired.

I was expecting to hate the characters as much as I grew to hate the immortal cast of the Mars trilogy, so when they started out sympathetic and intriguing, I was pleasantly surprised. The novel was fuzzy around the edges, though; I couldn’t tell when this near future was supposed to be happening. No dates were given and it seemed too near in general. The voices confused me as well: multiple characters would use idiosyncratic capitalized expressions like “Ice Planet” and “Götterdämmerung,” or carry on untagged dialogues, making it hard to distinguish between people.

The politics and feng shui weren’t sufficiently integrated into the plot, so whole chapters had a telling-not-showing feel to them. If it were me, I wouldn’t have introduced the ecoterrorists so early on in the novel; I would have let their depredations develop as more of a mystery. Instead of being the climax of the mystery, the man-against-nature results fill out the middle section of the novel. The end is devoted to politics.

That, also might have been more interesting had there been any conflict, but as this raving review points out, Antarctica is utopian in theme. There are no bad guys, so it’s not clear why any political wrangling is necessary. Even the ecoteurs turn out to be good guys who didn’t want to hurt any people in their ecotage. The bad corporations and politicians never appear, so there’s no real conflict after the man-against-ice resolution.

Even though I like feng shui and a lot of the politics involved, the presentation just wasn’t exciting enough for me. I have to agree with Steven Silver’s review that Antarctica works better as a travelogue than as a novel.

Bare-Faced Messiah is an on-line biography of L. Ron Hubbard I’ve been reading in fits and starts for a long time. It just ended at Hubbard’s mysterious death. I recall some wild speculation on the topic of his death from other anti-Scientology sites, so I was both impressed and disappointed with the mild ending of Bare-Faced Messiah. Truth is stranger than theology in this case (and that’s saying a lot when Scientology is involved).

Timescape, Ilium

Monday, September 13th, 2004

Pippin of the day: a soldier of Gondor

I’ve been reading mostly short fiction lately, but I got around to a couple of novels. Timescape by Gregory Benford seemed like a good idea at the time—a story about scientists from two different eras. In 1962, a Jewish researcher deals with strange perturbations in his experimental data while trying to understand his native Californian girlfriend. In 1998 (the book was written in 1980) a team of British physicists tries to extract grant money from a world government more concerned about imminent environmental collapse than hypothetical tachyons.

Except for the killer plankton, that’s about the sum total of the science in Timescape. The rest of the novel alternates between Our Hippie Hero’s relationship problems and the sexual escapades of a future Brit bureaucrat. In fact, the main pastime of scientists and their (stay-at-home) wives in 1998 seems to be adultery. The one female scientist I recall was a lesbian. Toss in the Armageddon by Plankton and the predictive power of Timescape approaches zero—not very reassuring in a time-travel novel (of sorts). I’m not sure whether this is a mainstream novel dressed up with tachyons, or a sci-fi novella with 300 pages of characterization tacked on. Either way, you get the picture.

Dan Simmons’ Ilium was the only Hugo nominee I hadn’t read, and now I’ve remedied the situation. Although Nicholas Whyte and Locus rated it first, I was disappointed by the lack of an ending. Paladin of Souls is also part of a series, but a freestanding part. I see now why it won over this book. Ilium left me hanging at the foot of Mt. Olympus.

It was a wild ride, though. Ilium follows the adventures of three sets of characters: several intelligent robots from Jupiter’s moons, a scholar resurrected by the Greek gods to check the progress of the Trojan war against the account in the Iliad, and a group of young eloi—useless, decadent humans—living on Earth. The robots eventually join up with a set of humans, but the other two plots never come together. It’s like reading two entirely separate novels shuffled together into one 575 page volume, and only one of them has anything like an ending.

Here’s another review along the same lines. It’s a fun read and hard to put down, but I wouldn’t recommend starting Ilium until you have your hands on the sequel.

[Update:] I forgot to mention my big nitpick of Ilium. The following are facts related to reproduction on the future Earth:

  1. A lecherous main character is concerned that his cousin may not want to sleep with him because of antiquated incest taboos.
  2. Each woman can reproduce only once.
  3. There is no incest between brothers and sisters because no one has brothers or sisters.
  4. There may be incest between fathers and daughters because no one knows who their father is. They do know their mothers.
  5. The natives believe their population is (artificially) fixed at one million people, though later in the novel this estimate is revised.
  6. Things have been this way for a long time now—to the characters, it seems that they’ve always been this way.

These facts contradict each other in several ways. The two characters cannot be full cousins if no one has any siblings. They could be half-siblings on the father’s side or the half-cousin descendants of such half-siblings, but they would not know it because paternity is not tracked.

Also, the population cannot be fixed at any number, either the original 1,000,000 or the later estimate, because the rate of reproduction (one child per woman) is far below the replacement rate. The number of fertile women would be halved in every generation. That the population is in geometric decline fits the plot of the novel, but the characters don’t seem to realize it. They may be clueless eloi, but that kind of population loss would be hard to miss after several generations.

Stalking the Wild Hugo

Monday, July 5th, 2004

My brief review of “Walk in Silence” by Catherine Asaro was linked as a dissenting positive opinion in Nicholas Whyte’s roundup of the 2004 Hugo Nominees. I’d tell you to vote early, vote often, but it’s too late to register to vote now.

[Update: It was too late for nominations a while back. I’m not sure about voting.]

The God Box, Analog

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

I’ve been reading too much fantasy lately, and after a few trilogies the religions all tend to run together. I suppose that’s only to be expected when the novels are all set on the same feudal island/peninsula with the same pseudo-Oriental neighbors, but I keep hoping for more than just n gods who are actually one god (where n ranges from 4 to 7) from the religions.

The God Box by Barry B. Longyear is kind enough not to number its deities so precisely. It also achieves what LMB has been trying to do with her fantasy - brings its gods to life and makes true believers out of damaged characters. Like Bujold, Longyear started out as a science fiction writer; The God Box was his first fantasy novel. In it, Our Hero, an unsuspecting carpet salesman, inherits a mysterious box that answers prayers. Like the gods themselves, though, the box answers in its own inscrutable way.

Our Hero soon finds himself on a Quest foretold in ancient scriptures, in which he meets bird people, skunk people, fish people, gods and giants. The biggest sign of the author’s sci-fi background is the god box’s ability to show Our Hero alternate timelines. That sort of reset button can undermine the seriousness of a story (as all Trek fans know), but despite the deep themes of prayer and trust this isn’t a serious novel. It’s short and fun, yet a far better combination of religion and fantasy than many doorstops I’ve seen.

The June Analog also has a couple of stories that stray into religious territory without quite convincing. “Time Ablaze” by Michael A. Burstein is the cover story, in which a time traveller goes back to the Lutheran community of turn-of-the-century NYC. As an adventure it works well, but I never quite got the feeling that Our Hero was dealing with a world that has since disappeared.

“Greetings from Kudesh” by J.T. Sharrah was equally effective as a story, and similarly problematic in its view into the mind of Our Heroine, the first Christian missionary to visit an alien planet. She comes off like the first interstellar Deist, which might have been interesting had that been the author’s intent. There are things a Deist might do to promulgate his religion that a Christian probably shouldn’t, and Our Heroine does one of them without any theological consideration of the problem.

It’s the differences between Christianity and Deism, between pantheism and monotheism, that make them the religions they are. I suppose if sf writers can’t make me believe their characters are real live practitioners of actual religions, then fantasy writers don’t have much of a chance of making up convincing new religions. Even The God Box was about faith qua faith, rather than a particular religion. Yet we owe our oldest stories to pantheons full of overactive imaginations - you’d think fantasy writers would get in on the act.

Pastwatch, Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines

Saturday, May 15th, 2004

I’ve read a few politically correct sci-fi books lately - one because I know the author and the other two because I’d never read that author before. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card manages to blame Columbus for everything from smallpox to World War III, yet gets him off the hook in the end. A post-war PC future uses time-travel TV’s to watch Columbus and other horrors of the past, making for two intertwined plots. Eventually the future TV technology improves, revealing an unexpected connection between the future and the past, and allowing Columbus to choose another path.

I suppose I should explain what I mean by a PC future. There are all sorts of sci-fi future - the paramilitary space opera future (LMB, David Weber, Gordon R. Dickson), the cyberpunk future (Gibson, Stephenson), the free love future (Niven, Allen Steele), the transhuman future (Egan, Vernor Vinge), the hell-in-a-handbasket future (Ayn Rand, Walter M. Miller, Jr.), the same-as-today near future (Connie Willis, Paul Levinson), the tech turned into fantasy future (Walter Jon Williams does it a lot), and so forth. The politically correct future is an extrapolation of multiculturalism, environmentalism, holism, and other PC trends - for example, Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre, anything by Octavia Butler, and possibly some late Ursula LeGuin. Despite being politically incorrect myself, I don’t object to the PC future - in fact, I think it’s relatively difficult to pull off, so when you find one it’s likely to be well done.

So I wanted to read some Suzy McKee Charnas and I found a two-in-one edition of Walk to the End of the World and its sequel, Motherlines. These are fairly old works of feminist sci-fi so the 70’s Armageddon backstory (down to the folk etymology of “bra-burning”) is cheesy and distracting, but the post-apocalyptic societies are interesting in their own right. The society of the first novel has enslaved women (an anti-PC future), and the second one has eliminated men for maximal PC-ness. Of the two, I found the first more interesting - slavery and oppression are always good for the plot. In a way it’s more reprehensible in its misandry (ascribing ludicrous levels of misogyny to your neighbors is misandry in my book) than The Handmaid’s Tale, but the post-nuclear setting makes it easier to set aside the fact that the author blames her own male contemporaries for this state of affairs. (I know they’re handicapped by the broken chromosome, but really, they’re not all that bad.)

Singularity Sky, Eastern Standard Tribe

Thursday, April 29th, 2004

Today’s reviews of works by up-and-coming authors were made possible by the new book shelves of the Boston Public Library, without which my reading would be restricted to old and hoary writers. Singularity Sky by Charlie Stross is the tale of an outlying colony of a backwards, faux-Russian bureaucratic empire visited by the mysterious Festival. The visit swiftly turns their society hilariously upside-down.

Whenever you see the word hilariously associated with a work of science fiction, it’s a safe bet the author is British. Usually these imported novels that never quite take themselves seriously annoy me, but in Singularity Sky the flaw is minor. I found it hard to care about the menagerie of loosely-associated characters - the novel follows some of the hapless colonists, a civilized engineer working for several parties outside the Empire, the secret policemen assigned to spy on him, a UN liaison, a shipload of the Empire’s inept forces, and possibly others I’ve forgotten.

But for sheer fun, it’s a must-read. You’ll never forget telephones dropping from the sky, the goose that laid the golden egg, or the poor engineer’s difficulties convincing the locals that the UN isn’t a world government.

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow hangs together much better, perhaps because it’s hardly more than a novella. Happily, the dimensions of the hardcover fit the reduced length. That the world can be divided up into tribes living in different timezones is just one of the witty reflections of our slightly unbalanced narrator. He’s an idea guy with girlfriend problems who’s contemplating a new musical toll system for the Mass Turnpike - things get crazier from there. The novel held lots of gratifying local interest for me, being a resident of both the EST time zone and the city of Boston. Perhaps a member of one of the enemy tribes would have been more annoyed.

EST is short, fun, twisty and snarky - you really can’t go wrong with this one.