Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, December 30, 2011

1972: Starbrat (Morressy, John)

Rapid plot bypasses unique planets and subplots (3/5)


John Morressy is better know for his fantasy in the Kedrigern Universe but has also made a foray into the science fiction genre with Starbrat (the first book in a series of six) and a single edition of The Extraterritorial. If you can squirm past the irksome sight of the cover and refrain from cringing at the generic title, inside the book there is all-too-rapid plot set amid a post-diaspora galaxy where humanity has colonized the stars for forty-seven generations. Old Earth is just a memory as one man is kidnapped from his bucolic home world and finds himself at the center of more than one galactic stage.

Del is small for his age on the planet of Gilead, where life is slow and the work on the farm takes precedence over everything. Del (short for Deliverance-from-the-Void Whitby) has faster reflexes than his counterparts and the reason for this is given to him on the eve of his rite of passage: he was delivered as a baby to the planet in a mysterious single-man craft with an illegible piece of paper. Soon after this revelation comes to light, Del is kidnapped by space pirates (oh my!) while protecting his sweetheart from the grips of the slave mongers.

Once upon the ship, the pirates discuss what to do with little Del. When one pirate speaks ill of his sweetheart, Del must defend her honor while aboard the spaceship, where his nimbleness and swiftness allow him to fall the beast of a man. It is thus decided to take Del to a planet which sees human combat as the greatest sport. This is where Del begins his second life.

Del has a humble upbringing which drives him to seek out his home planet and return to his sweetheart. After his departure from the gladiator/arena planet of Tarquin VII, his fighting skills take him around the planets at breakneck speed. Each planetfall results in a mini-adventure for Del and his expanding crew of noble yet fearsome cohorts, but what Morressy doesn't do is weave it all together in a tidy manner. There are too many coincidences for such a large galaxy; too many links to the past; too many tiny revelations regarding Del's ancestry. The last 10% of the book skips decades and decades, distancing the reader from Del's ordeals and leading to the sequel... which doesn't even have the same protagonist but takes place in the same universe Morressy has created.

There are some great aspects to Starbrat like the aforementioned planet Tarquin VII and Watson's planet, where data is currency and a supercomputer governs all. Also, the galaxy teems with life. "...the races of the galaxy were a homogeneous bunch... they were homogeneous enough to interbreed successfully." The other viviparous aliens aren't explored in great detail (as a matter of fact, nothing is really explored in great detail) but one or two aliens do play key roles in the later chapters.

It's not a boring read because of all the commotion but then again I do prefer a calm setting with lots of romantic description and vivid imagery. Starbrat sulks in th 2-star region before one twist of plot ratchets it up to three stars. This twist is a culmination of years of physical and mental effort on Del's part and provides the means to his final decision. It's a well crafted move but leaves the end of the novel flapping in the wind. The sequel Nail Down the Stars doesn't have any appeal to me but I have already purchased his other science fiction novel, The Extraterritorial. I don't hold great hopes for it.

1972: The City Machine (Trimble, Louis)

Vertically segregated city imbues social revolution (4/5)
From May 3, 2011


Rear cover synopsis:
"The entire population of that colonized planet was crowded into one all-enclosed self-functioning city construction. For the majority the situation was like living forever in the steerage of an immigrant freighter. For a few there were some privileges, and for the Highs, power and luxury had been secured by a change of language and the destruction of the old books. Which was where the man Ryne came in. For he was the last who could read the original language - and if they could ever locate the machine that could build new cities, he'd be the only one to read the instructions. The story of the search for the City Machines, the linguistics and logistics problems presented, and the fight for Ryne's very life is a science fiction novel of edge-of-the-seat excitement."

My first Trimble novel isn't such a bad one. The book's synopsis really nails it as I have very little to add to it. There are three levels of people: at the bottom are those who perform the machine city's dirty work for the comfort of the Highs while those in the middle perform administrative duties. Some Lowers with promising skills can be uplifted to Upper like Ryne. After a successful duty in Upper, one's offspring can be upgraded to the height of the Highs, where everything is comfort and luxury. The Coordinator is an Upper who has hope for his offspring to live the life with the Highs.

There is a lot of double crossing and perhaps triple crossing, if you're keen enough to spot it. The motivations of the characters (for those inside the City and even those living outside the City) are clear. When Ryne reflects on his dedications to his partner in the Upper, towards his duty for Coordinator, towards his belief in revolution with the outside and towards uncovering injustice, he ambles like a serpent between all these duties. He's a bit of a master-of-consciousness.

I found the entire plot to capture my imagination (which any good book should be, period) where a space colony ship crashes and the crew is split between living in the Machine City they have brought with them or to live under stars. This split is where language diverges, customs stray and knowledge digresses. With a rare lineage of old language readership, Ryne's family has been the keeper of the ancient script and Ryne, himself, is the last to be able to read the language in which the manual for the Machine City is written. When the Lowers have this knowledge with the help of Ryne, they hope to construct their own city but without the social injustice experienced in the current Machine City.

I would have liked to have experienced the living conditions, the social atmosphere of each of the levels. I found all of that lacking and therefore I found it hard to sympathize with the plight of the Lowers and the righteousness of the Highs. Barring this one fault, it's a good, thoughtful read. I also have Trimble's The Wandering Variables is my 120+ book collection, which I hope also provides a sense of wonder as The City Machine has done.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

2002: Chindi (McDevitt, Jack)

Annoying details contrast amazing discoveries (3/5)


While Part Three (Chindi) is much better than Part Two (Deepsix), Chindi is still stubbornly laden with flaws; most are inane but when taken collectively, they're very annoying. If you've read more than two Jack McDevitt novels before reading Chindi, you kind of know what to expect: his writing is based on Golden Age sci-fi with starpilots, searches for aliens, and discovery/catastrophe always abreast... but bloated to the point where it's painfully obvious when the author is trying to stuff material in the pages to meet his word count quota. Chindi is bloated indeed, but also holds the magical Golden Age sensation of discovery.

With the discovery of stealth satellites circling a neutron star, sending data off to other star systems. When a crew, piloted by Hutch, track the signal, they make earth-shattering discoveries while throwing caution to wind in order to become personally acquainted with their discoveries. I guess the crew never heard of the proverb "curiosity killed the cat" or the phrase "disasters come in threes". The crew just do not learn from their mistakes, that they are in alien territory, that behind every corner is something inhuman, that they have NO relation to anything they find. You may find yourself covering your eyes as the cast metaphorically attempt to stick their figure back into the electrical outlet.

Some have said that the first quarter of the book has a great pace, but I found it absolutely littered with superfluous details: names of suburbs and street names, show titles and song titles (with lyrics), names of lighting directors and show synopses, and finally the inclusion of specific food and drink orders of every meal (a blue giraffe and melted cheese). Add to this quotes (both real and fabricated) which precede each chapter and you begin to get the feel that words were being chucked in in order to stuff the pages to a bloated 511 pages. The quotes aren't as bad as the prosthelytizing of Gregory MacAllister in Deepsix, as if McDevitt write himself into the novel (and yes, he does make a guest appearance and has a few quotes).

Then there are the "suspend your belief" portions of the book. (1) Aliens inhabiting a moon in orbit between twin gas giants own armchairs, a pantry, have pictures on the wall, and even park their spaceship next to their house. (2) The ship AI Bill manages to snap a photo of a ship traveling at a quarter of light-speed, three hundred kilometers away, and still manage to capture a human figure on the surface of the rock. What kind of shutter speed is that? One-quintillionth of a second? (3) Hypothesizing that each alien species uses exactly the same technology that humans use. McDevitt is know for his xeno-archeology but when the exhuming begins, the characters always begin to make anthropomorphic assumptions.

For all the flaws McDevitt enjoys penning into this novel, the sense of discovery and wonder takes precedence. Stealth satellites observe budding civilizations and unique stellar formations, an starship houses passageways with thousands of rooms where scenes of alien moment occasions are displayed, and the secrets of early human FTL travel comes to light - these are the secrets which propel me to read the next book: Omega (which is mentioned at the end of Chindi).

2000: Deepsix (McDevitt, Jack)

Modern pulp akin to James Rollins (2/5)
From June 13, 2011

I'm only just begun to realize this, but Jack McDevitt is the James Rollins of science fiction. Let me explain: 1) James Rollins writes archeology adventure... Jack McDevitt writes archeology adventure in space. 2) James Rollins has textbook characters... Jack McDevitt has text book characters in space.

The first James Rollins book was Subterranean and I actually really liked it for its adventure. In parallel, my first Jack McDevitt book was Engines of God and I, too, really liked it for its adventure and newness. My second Rollins and McDevitt books were, respectively, Excavation and Polaris, which I both found to be just OK because even after ONE novel of each author, the writing styles were generic. I got around to my third Rollins novel, Deep Fathom, and chucked it into the garbage after completing it. Crap. While this McDevitt novel isn't quite that bad, it still feels like an aim at quantity rather than quality.

My dad likes Jack McDevitt. That should have been my first warning... he also likes James Rollins. Nevertheless, I still have rosy-tinted spectacles donned when I look at my second-hand McDevitt collection and I remember how great it was to delve into Engines of God. Where has the glamor gone?

McDevitt's stabs at characterization were pathetic; just terrible. He feels the need to mention everyone's height, how this person is one head shorter or this person well above six foot - I don't see how the reader's knowledge of the heights of the cast will reflect in any sort of empathy, especially as it plays NO part in the unfolding of the plot. Secondly, McDevitt gives passing characters names and jobs and a brief life history even though these characters have very little impact on the bigger scene. Lastly, it seems like every character has their current job because `the money is pretty good' (this is written more than three times).

As for his writing style, I can't say he earns any points there either. McDevitt's main science fiction competitors are from Britain, who lush prose and detail makes me agog with borderline reverence. Deepsix has paragraphs no longer than eight lines, usually comprised of two or three lines and splattered with liberal amounts of dialogue. There isn't a poetic narrator or a reflective first-person perspective. It much like an American best-seller- lots of dialogue to hold the waning attention of the reader. Another liberty McDevitt took advantage of was using the phrase, `thank God' to a annoyingly gregarious degree- more than a score of times, for sure.

Further, the very liberal-minded character Gregory MacAllister feels like McDevitt preaching his personal philosophies. It's all too glossy and well-refined to simply be a mere addition to the cast and to the introductions to all thirty-six chapters (a fictional quote titling each chapter). He's not a terrible character but I think McDevitt intentionally write himself into MacAllister's shoes.

And yet, I will read the next sequence, Chindi, with much reservation.  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

1973: On Wheels (Jakes, John)

Come for the setting; ignore the show (3/5)

I have to admit that John Jakes has a quirky vision here: America becomes so over-crowded that 10% of the population permanently live on the super-superhighways of America, traveling in clans with interlocking vans which can be dormitories, garages, bars or hospitals... all the while NEVER dropping below 40 miles per hour. The rear cover synopsis reads:

"John Jakes... careens into America's future On Wheels. This is the time of clans in vans. Caravans of clans in vans roll out their lives, their loves, their war, their retribution on superstrip America - land of the autos that steer the lives of those inside them on accelerated hallucinatory highway of tomorrow.

Remember the rules of the run! You are sentences for life to do no less than 40mph at all times. To drop below that speed means death. The future is here: the automotive revolution has finally overrun human evolution. This is life- One Wheels"

The premise may be somewhat cheesy and the delivery is kind of cheesy, too, but try to imagine living a life on the go, where racking up 50 million miles on your car would be an outstanding achievement. In the age where internal combustion engines are outlawed (but the clans still have a few for some fun) but your caravan of supposed "eco-friendly" cars traverse the American continent for the simple sake of having a place to call their own. Why is it illegal for them to stop on an off-ramp or approach a city center? The question is intriguing but don't beat yourself up over the answer because it's rather obvious.

Besides the trying notion of living the "fast life", John Jakes offers up a two-for-one in On Wheels: (1) the reader gets to experience a few car races races among road clans involving fiery deaths and crunching metal and (2) the blossoming and wilting of two youngsters in marriage. The love is superficial and scantly believable but you don't read On Wheels for the love story! While I do enjoy an occasional car chase sequence in a novel (mmm, that doesn't happen often actually), the wilting of the marriage between the young protagonist stud Billy and beauty queen of another clan Rose Ann is terribly annoying to watch unfold. Jakes stereotypes Rose Ann as an unforgiving and illogical vixen out for blood rather than a sensible and purposeful individual seeking companionship and understanding. Ever encounter with Rose Ann proves to be irksome and yet Jakes writes the protagonist Billy as the "man who stands by his woman with honor". Again, it sounds cheesy, right?

For a man who loves long-winded book reviews (I'm happy to be accused of that), I'm a little shocked that there's not much else to say about On Wheels. The reader should come for the unique setting of the future of the American lifestyle and how people get on with gettin' on. Jakes definitely has a spark of originality in him but I hesitate to procure such novels with terrible covers as Mention My Name in Atlantis and Six-Gun Planet. Regardless of the covers, I'm sure I'll pick up the next Jakes novel I come across.

1973: Singularity Station (Ball, Brian N.)

The Cadillac of pulp sci-fi (5/5)
From May 12, 2011

Brian Ball hasn't penned a large number of science fiction novels and the ones you do find are obscure derelicts from the 1970s. Leave it to DAW to publish one of Ball's books (#84) and leave it to me to choose the obscure books from the shelves of the second-hand book store: it's what I seek and savor. And savor I did with Singularity Station.

Read cover synopsis: "Robotic minds made interstellar travel possible, but human minds still controlled the destination and purpose of such flight. Conflict develops only when a programmed brain cannot evaluate beyond what is visible and substantial, whereas the human mind is capable of infinite imagination - including that which is unreal.

Such was the problem at the singularity in space in which the Altair Star and a hundred other vessels had come to grief. At that spot, natural laws seem subverted - and some other universe's rules impinged.

From Buchanan, the station meant a chance to observe and maybe rescue his lost vessel. For the robotic navigators of oncoming spaceships, the meaning was different. And at Singularity Station the only inevitable was conflict."

Fairly wordy for a synopsis but it covers nearly everything that makes this 176-page novel a savory morsel to seek out: Buchanan was captain (but not navigator) of a passenger cruiser when the robotic navigators approached the singularity. Buchanan knew the dangers but the robots believed that such a thing could not exist, therefore there was no danger. Because of Buchanan's persistence, the robots ejected the captain from the ship and he witnessed the ship dive into the void.

A handful of years later, with his relationship on the rocks and his partner going back to her home planet, Buchanan applies for the sole post at the observation station near the singularity. His distrust (bordering on hate) of robots allows him to ignore their beckoning calls of oversight. He pushes the station to its limits to explore the singularity rather than to casually observe it.

Meanwhile, his ex-partner Liz accepts a free ride back to her planet by way of the companies convict transport ship, which is heading her way. With the convicts in stasis and the crew a wholesome bunch, the trip should smooth-sailing (intro ominous music). BUT, a much feared cybernetic mad-scientist and criminal is aboard and has subverted the freezing process. With his self-release and utter control of all the  class-1, class-2 and class-3 robots secure, the scientist seeks further escape from the penal cruisers towards the singularity. With Liz aboard acting as his logical conscious, can their death be avoided?

Half-way through the novel, most of the mentioned plot had already occurred. There was a lot happening and yet it was easy to follow the electrifying plot strands: Buchanan groveling in his obsession at the singularity's station and Liz's penal plight with the crazed scientist. I didn't think the novel had the steam to carry the momentum produced in the first half, but after a number of chapters it was obvious that the plot endurance was perpetual. I was wide-eyed with anticipation, my mind was a-bubbling with bountiful possible conclusions and, I swear, my pulse was racing. Kid you not.

There are exciting elements (pretty much the whole novel is gripping), there are very human elements with characters exhibiting idiosyncratic flaws and there is even humor based in the human-robot interactions. The robots are strictly logic oriented and the human commanders are typically vague and snippy, requiring the robots to ask questions repeatedly, in differing ways with a sophisticated snobbish attitude. It has everything a solid stereotypical science fiction novel ought to have: brevity, wit, humanity, action, robots, spaceships and a mad scientist.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

1961: Meeting at Infinity (Brunner, John)

Dark, subtle tones of deceit and exploitation in capitalism (5/5)

Another reason Brunner remains my favorite science fiction author! After reading fourteen novels by Brunner and thinking "I must have seen it all", I pick up a mint-condition 1969 Ace edition of Meeting at Infinity (1961) and realize that Brunner holds as many surprises as he does mysteries. Being one of his earlier novels, it's a great place to start if you avoid The 100th Millennium (1959) and Echo in the Skull (1959).

For a 1960s novel and only being 155 pages, the complexity and intrigue Brunner manages to weave into the fold is impressive from the cryptic start in the prologue. It's one of those novels, which as soon as you start, you realize you going to need to take notes. It's not like a droning lecture on economics where every topic holds some importance, rather it's to keep track of the variety of character names and character duty (for me, plots are easier to track than characters).

The Earth we know has discovered the science of transportation to parallel worlds of alternate histories of earth. With this connection comes administration of the new earths and the import of items. This administration is controlled by The Market, who are strict about import because of the White Death which was accidentally imported and destroyed half the earth's population.

Ahmed Lyken is a mercantile prince with a franchise over the earth-sister planet of Akkilmar, linked by Tacket portals to Earth. The portal/planet administration in The Market finds the latest shipment of wheat to contain a mold and they move to strip the planet from Lyken, albeit with ulterior motives. Lyken won't go down without a fight and begins to recruit resistance among the city's masses. A detective named Athlone hunts for an attempted murderer, Luis Nevada, but only becomes entangled in the web of deceit which The Market had begun to spin. Nevada was cleared of murder charges because his wife lived through her ordeal and she is now supported by an exotic technology imported from Lyken's earth-sister of Akkilmar... which is the nexus of struggle conveyed in Meeting at Infinity.

That rather lengthy summary only touches about 15% of the overall plot, which only becomes headier and headier with each passing chapter. It's a novel requiring concentration and understanding; it's not a novel to be picked up and read on commute or when bored as it requires some passages to be re-read. With the logistics aside, the reader will also be immersed in a subtle yet rich urban landscape which Brunner creates. Without as many words, Brunner paints a dreary, capitalistic society bent on segregation and exploitation yet still managing to survive because of the love/hate connections between parallel earths. A timeless essence shrouds the ongoings of the scurrying street gangs, the lofty administration, and the preparation of battle for the earth-sister of Akkilmar. The dark and subtle tone of the onset of the novel is engrossing.

Compound this eternally nocturnal setting with a cast of quickly yet craftily humanized characters and you'll the life emerge from the pages: "The Rememberancer gave a nod; he liked to recite verbatim, which was his greatest pleasure because it was his only accomplishment." (page 21) With a single sentence, the reader can identify with the quasi-profession of the Rememberancer. Another particularly well crafted wordiness orchestrated by Brunner is how he ignores a simple sentence like "Then he fainted" and spins it into, "Curdy let slip his hold on consciousness and drifted into the comfort of darkness again." (page 147)

Meeting at Infinity is a complex yet fascinating gem in the hit-or-miss bibliography of Brunner. This early "definite HIT" of Brunner's launches itself into my Top Three Brunner novels thus far, along with Total Eclipse and The Long Result. Onward it is, with the other 10 or so Brunner yet-to-be-read novels lining my shelves! 

1965: The Long Result (Brunner, John)

Mysteries, intrigue and coy humor abound (5/5)
From July 18, 2009


The sixth Brunner novel I've read and I'm still impressed with his skill in forming detailed and intriguing plots in less than 200 pages. The Long Result wowed me for 180 wonderful pages. Not only is this plot continually unfolding until the last page but Brunner sauces the sparse novel with tongue-in-cheek humor, which had me shaking my finger at the coy author.

The rear cover of the book reads:
"Who wanted the aliens-dead? The crisis broke on a morning when bureaucrat Roald Vincent received a piece of fanatic hate mail - and uncovered a pattern of interstellar terrorism and attempted murder. Who were the lunatics who would kill humans to destroy Earth's friendly visitors? What were the shadowy spy plans of the delegation from Earth's totalitarian colony, Starhome? Why did Vincent's government superiors do nothing to stop the conspiracy? And where did Anovel, the enigmatic Regulan, fit into the complex and deadly plot? Vincent had to put the pieces together - for the long result could change human destiny... and the short result could kill him."

While the synopsis may be 1980s-quality reader-mongering, the actual story is, indeed, complex. One mystery leads to another successive mystery and all the clues pile onto one another until some conclusions can be drawn, not only by the characters investigating these mysteries, but by the reader, too! It may be a tad predictable or perhaps I was just so keen to figure it all out before Brunner got to the point of revealing his conclusions. All the solved mysteries were satisfactory and all the reserved humor was refreshing. For example, my favorite paraphrased paragraph in the book reads "She launched into an interesting survey of my immediate ancestry and I learned the technical names for several kinds of congenital mental deficiency and twenty symptoms for pigheaded obtuseness."

Compared with Brunner's other works, the plot is shaped around one man, his genius and his intuitions, akin to Bedlam Planet and Polymath. Yet the politics is an aspect of a Brunner novel I haven't encountered before and I must say that Brunner tackled it artfully, where as I usually find bureaucratic plots lackluster. Brunner's keen eye for plot detail, in alien and human relationships and a thoughtfulness to keep the writing refreshing allows me to enjoy reading his older novels, which are new to me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

1993: The Destiny Makers (Turner, George)

Bleak look at decisions to population: cull or control (5/5)


I was first introduced to George Turner by picking up a nice looking novel in the science fiction section of my local second-hand bookstore. The novel was Down There In Darkness and the cover alone was hypnotizing enough. Once in the meat of the novel, the plot, too, was captivating with its essences of psychology and dystopian post-apocalypse Australia. That same novel also happens to be his last novel. Destiny Makers also has the psychological element but pre-dates the apocalypse, where the Earth is home to 12 billion people. Destiny Makers is about the cusp of cataclysm. (PS: I just realized that the same characters are used in Down There in Darkness. The themes are similar, so the two are actually linked... which teaches me not to space books like this 34 months apart)

The setting of Destiny Makers is one to make you stop and think. There are many passages which describe the bleak future of an over-populated earth and the decisions which must be made in order for earth to survive and humanity to thrive again, once free of the restrain from the shackles of unbidden growth. The two major solutions to population decline are found on page 67; "...how to restrain birthing. Or perhaps, how to expedite dying." With only two solutions, the protagonists must decide... but keep in mind, it is also humanity which must decide the curtailing of population.

"We are sufficiently civilized to know what we should do; our problem is what we are." (Page 250) Harry is a police detective born of lowly Wardie status. His honesty and integrity highlight him for a specific job of guarding a mysterious man in a mysterious hospital. It's known soon enough that the man is the once-senile father of the Premier who has undergone the illegal operation of age-reversal, which has also unclouded his mind. This breach in population law by the Premier himself is large enough for a major issue, so security is tight.

"Humanity is a disease that slaughters everything in its ambit; now it must slaughter its own flesh in order to preserve a viable core." (Page 259) The Premier is clearly disturbed by his inability to make the decision of all decisions. International pressure is on shoulders on the Premier, which is why he brought back his father from the brink of death. However, any counsel sought by the Premier belittles the voice of the majority of Wardies. With a choice needing to be made, will the Premier crack under pressure?

"Who's killing the world? People. Can't stop eating, can't stop f***ing, can't stop living, can't stop anything. Everyone says it's the other man's fault so kill him but leave me alone to do as I like. You got to get people out of the world to let it live." (Page 275) Compound the hi-so Premier's break down in leadership with Harry's lo-so perseverance and the result is a gathering of peripheral characters which stabilize the plot: a psychologist, a trained security man and right-hand of Harry, political opposition, a blackmailing doctor, and the pregnant teenaged daughter of the Premier. It's wide enough cast to allow for all sorts of contingent outcomes and will have you guessing exactly WHAT decision must be made.

"...the race bred like maggots across the carcass of earth." (Page 310) As bleak and pessimistic as it may sound, the realist in me sees The Destiny Makers as a stepping stone in what the real world must eventually do in order to curb its own population. It's sadly inevitable that we can't naturally cull ourselves like rabbits facing starvation... a decision must be made. This is exactly what Georoge Turner puts forth in The Destiny Makers. He may have been aiming for the mind of reader when he penned this novel, but be aware that it'll leave you feeling as if you've been punched in the gut.

1999: Down There in Darkness (Turner, George)


Psychological  and Sociological sci-fi Masterpiece (5/5)  
From January 25, 2009

An amazing mix of sciences of psychology, genetics and sociology is unfolded into the plot, which spans 130 years (2033, 2068 and 2168) and touches the expanse of human consciousness.

During the 2030s, Earth is in an era similar to the Roaring 20s during the 1920s. The economy is growing (as well as the population) while everyone is blissfully ignorant of the imminent ecological collapse around them. At this time, an experiment is conducted to probe question within the mind through sensory deprivation, which ends in one man becoming comatose.

Fast-forward to the 2060s and the world has obviously taken a turn for the worst: global warming, joblessness, crime, paranoia... the works. Turner writes, "It was a time when murder was commonplace; respect for life was not a prime commandment in a world wherein the vast bulk of population had no hope of rising out of Suss poverty and nurtured little morality beyond self-preservation." Main character Harry gets a strange case about an experiment from the 2030s and is asked to probe the repercussion of the comatose man's wakening. It's shrouded in mystery as the man hasn't aged and has been given over to a cult church by his own wife. Harry calls on his friend Gus to assist him in the awakening along with a psychologist and a host of observers.

(I just realized that the same two characters Harry and Gus are in this novel as well as The Destiny Makers. They have the same disposition and jobs. Perhaps it's time for a re-read!)

The plot then links the story to the year 2168, one hundred years later, and we find Harry and Gus confronting a more terrible future. Here, the few people still alive are "products of an inheritance too garbled for resolution by nationality." They must confront a new world order and the unfortunate history which has passed them by.

It's a mind bending read, which isn't based far from the current speculative future we are seeing today

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

1987: In the Bone (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Exploring the Alien Condition and the Human Condition (5/5)

I've known Dickson by reputation alone: well-known for his Dorsai! series and once described as a science fiction romantic. When I first read his work in was, unfortunately, his 1977 revision to his 1965 novel Mission to Universe. Whatever had been revised must have been the downgrade quality compared his short stories in this collection, In the Bone. Mission to Universe was weak is nearly all regards.

In amazing shift of probability, In the Bone is a collection of very thoughtful pieces gently revolving around two similar themes: fathoming the alien condition and alienation from humanity or the human condition. These two themes are something I give some spare thought to from time to time. Such as, if humans were to be contacted by aliens, would communication even be feasible? My thoughts on this are that aliens will be exactly what the world implies in all regards: will be know they even exists, if we do then our modes of communication will be wildly different, and if we can communicate then our worldviews and sensation will not be translatable. This is reflected in Dickson's short stories. In this regard, I've felt a syzygy of thought with Dickson and has led me to really love this collection! In fact, Dickson has about twenty more collection out there! Wow, I'm getting dizzy with near-giddiness.

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Twig (1974) - 4/5 - Twig is a human connected with the planet-spirit, named Grandfather, of Jinson's Planet. Remaining hidden in her nurturing forest, the slash and burn farmers wish to find and kill the Grandfather but her communication with the Earth visitor from Paraplanetary Government may thwart the witch-hunt. 33 pages

God Bless Them (1982) - 5/5 - Merlin snags a chance to train for work in space amidst the failing American economy. His only expense is paying for Californian detective agency to search for his wife and his only annoyance is a tag-along by the name of Church adds to his pressures; but which one will put the nail in his coffin? 25 pages

Hilifter (1963) - 4/5 - Locked from the outside, a hijacker is stuck in his cabin cubicle and must find a way out of the room, through the levels of the spaceship and into the control room to wrestle control from the commander for the good of the colony planets. 19 pages

Brother Charlie (1958) - 4/5 - Human mediator and two individuals of the two terrestrial species of intelligent life on a planet crash in the sea (home of one species), make it to land (home of the other) and head for the human's Base. The human tries to have them understand each other's viewpoints and to just get along. 32 pages

Act of Creation (1957) - 4/5 - Man witnessing the death of the son of the creator of androids in the Dorsai universe pays him a visit and witnesses for himself the humanity of the creator, himself. 11 pages

Idiot Solvent (1961) - 5/5 - Art only sleeps only seven hours per week and is hired for a study in sleep deprivation and intelligence. After ten days of no sleep, being doped with the "monster", and escaping the building, the man babbles incessantly and is eventually brought back and given hypnosis. 18 pages

Call Him Lord (1962) - 5/5 - (1966 Nebula: Best Novelette) Prince and heir-apparent to the galactic throne visits earth to sample what life is like on the backwater planet, original home of humankind. His conceited palatial attitude is accepted by his bucolic bodyguard even when the Prince causes trouble with the villagers. 22 pages

Tiger Green (1965) - 4/5 - Plagued by paralyzing nightmares and suicidal tendencies, Exploration Team 529 is stranded on a planet which is attacking its ship and crew. Four of the seventeen have put off the xeno-possession and attempt contact with the natives, whose circular logic has them very confused. 23 pages

Of the People (1955) - 3/5 - With charm, influence, and inventiveness as his attributes along with the power of ultimate persuasion, Sam leaves New York to seek out a Himalayan yogi in order to transcend. 5 pages

Dolphin's Way (1964) - 5/5 - Dolphin researcher fosters a notion that successfully communicating with the dolphins will open up communication with extra-terrestrials. With research funding on the brink of collapse, the researcher is eager to spill forth his knowledge and ideas to a beautiful visiting reporter. 18 pages

In the Bone (1966) - 5/5 - Man technologically equipped to traverse the stars and explore new worlds finally meets another intelligence, who zaps him from the sky, disables his precious machinery and reverts the modern man back to his primal self to survive in the alien landscape in the shadow of the alien pyramid which struck him down. 22 pages 

1973: The Alien Condition (Goldin, Stephen [editor])

How aliens may live, work, die, breed, etc. (4/5)
From July 19, 2011


A collection of one dozen science fiction stories which attempts to "examine the Human Condition - by examining the much larger and more general problem of the Alien Condition." The collection has a fantastic start with back-to-back stories which are unique and inviting. It was surely headed for a perfect 5-of-5-stars rating for the collection until the last three stories (about 40% of the volume) make a terrible ending. You might as well just SKIP the last three stories altogether.

--------------------------

Kathleen Sky: Lament of the Keeku Bird - 4/5 - Female carnivore must cross the desert on her belly to Long Rock so that she will transform into an Old On. With pieces of her flesh and matted hide behind her, a vulture-like Keeku trails. 18 pages

Vonda N. McIntyre: Wings - 4/5 - Crippled hermetic winged alien accepts the unexpected visit of a crippled youth. Combating loneliness, habit and his religious vows, the old man nurses the youth back to health even though his departure is likely. 17 pages

Alan Dean Foster: The Empire of T'ang Lang - 5/5 - The alien named T'ang Lang is the master of his environment. He taunts mountains, sharpens his knives and lives in solitude to wait for his next kill. 9 pages

Mirian Allen deFord: A Way Out - 4/5 - Scaled alien ambassador to earth is disgusted by all things human and misses all things of his homeland. With very different laws between the two planets, an escape by a felonious act is his only solution. 12 pages

Arthur Byron Cover: Gee, Isn't He the Cutest Little Thing - 4/5 - A rather cynical little alien is stranded on earth, kept as a pet. He vents his cultural and sexual frustrations by lambasting all earthly things including cats, pigs and talk shows. 7 pages

Rachel Cosgrove Payes: Dead Listener - 4/5 - Survey ship finds no intelligent life on a gaseous, barren planet but when scooping and compressing the gases, the hull starts to dissolve wherever they go. 8 pages

C.F. Hensel & Stephen Goldin: Nor Iron Bars a Cage - 3/5 - Fifteen-minded alien senses, hears, then views a tall metallic object surrounded by a gas-created char. The minds debate on the source and move to investigate. 11 pages

Thomas Pickens: Routine Patrol Activity - 4/5 - Playful security duo sing-song their way through their patrol. When confronted by an unidentified object, the two attempt to establish contact the only way they know how. 11 pages

William Carlson & Alice Laurance: Call from Kerlyana - 4/5 - An avian intelligence and a potty-mouthed reptilian intelligence are at limited war on the continent they share. One of each of them is chosen as an envoy by an alien third party to establish a peace agreement. 15 pages

S. Kye Boult: The Safety Engineer - 1/5 - Subterranean safety inspector of a delicately balanced ecosystem relying on cooperation, dadada - it's unbearable to read and stopped after only fifteen page. No wonder it was only published once. 61 pages

James Tiptree, Jr.: Love is the Plan the Plan is Death - 2/5 - Some sort of giant dinosaur/spider hibernates after a long winter to fall in love with a tiny pink being, who he binds in woven silk as she grows to maturity through the warm summer months. 19 pages

Edward Wellen: The Latest from Sigma Corvi - 3/5 - Radio DJ reads the 6:25 news summary but fails to understand the gibberish pronouns and links the occurrence to an astronomical anomaly. 4 pages

Saturday, November 19, 2011

1982: The Eye of the Queen (Mann, Phillip)

Humanistic SF with journal plot device (5/5)
From October 20, 2011


I had never heard of Phillip Man before reading Wulfsyarn but while reading it I was unexpectedly impressed with the level of humanistic writing Mann was capable of. His usage of the journal-like device was fascinating and I searched for his most acclaimed novel Eye of the Queen soon after.

Using a more pronounced device of the journal-like narrative, the style is captivating in its detail and chronological unfolding. The journal of Thorndyke chronicles his contact from beginning to end with the alien species Pe-Ellia, through the initial contact, the first awkward days on the new planet and the dismissal of his subordinate Tomas. The thirty-eight journal entries are often accompanied by Tomas's commentary on the specifics of each matter or historical background. This duo-layered journal device imbues the novel with rich detail spread out for the reader to mull over and consume.

The Pe-Ellia species are difficult to wrap your head around, seeming to be as alien as the title implies. Yet their commonality in their spiritual devotion and altruistic aura unveils a human-like base to touch. The Contact Linguists they both are, the road to understanding their alien counterparts must be lightly tread for risk of giving offense. The penultimate guide for this contact was established by Thorndyke but we witness him withdrawing from the very procedures he established. This alarms Tomas but, being the subordinate, he continues to chronicle the visit.

Mann seems to be able to create a humanistic character (like Wilberfoss in Wulfsyarn and here with Thorndyke) and allow the reader to sympathize with the self-styled human he has created in the pages. Certainly, these two characters are well developed but then they become a sort of empty husk, unsubstantiated by personal and external conflicts- the level of sympathy is always on the rise.

For fantastic insight and intimate detail, I can hardly look at any other author with the same passion Mann exudes in both Wulfsyard and Eye of the Queen. This is the pinnacle of humanistic science fiction along with Eric Brown's The Fall of Tartarus and J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.

1977: The Last Transaction (Malzberg, Barry N.)

Peek into a President's Public/Private Life (4/5)
 

Rear cover synopsis:
“…The Last Transaction is a deep and fascinating glimpse into the memories, inner compulsions, torments, triumphs, and events in the life of a President of the United States in a world gone mad, from 1980 to 1984. Even more, it is perceptive vision of the major issues our society will face tomorrow. Sure to be controversial, possibly prophetic, like anything Barry Malzberg writes, this novel is an experience you will not forget.”

This is my first Malzberg novel but it happens to be one of his later novels (1977). Unfortunately, I had to start somewhere and this novel struck my interest. It’s not so much science fiction as it is a twisted look into one man’s mind in the years 1980-1990, so it’s more of a weird fiction novel set in the future than a science fiction novel.

Malzberg writes a novel portraying, much as the synopsis says, the internal logic of one man. These thoughts and memories spill forth from a man slowly sinking into dementia. Now a very frail 80 years old in the year 1990, the 1980-1984 ex-president of the United States is housebound and attempting to complete the memoirs of his life. However, his failing physical health and diminishing grip on reality affects his ability to think clearly and act rationally.

ENTER William Eric Springer
The marriage with his first wife ended on a sour note as she grew continually more haggard and their love life tapering off into negligence. Even the offspring, born out of casualness rather than love, cannot keep them together. With the divorce finalized, William seeks out more steady liaisons with a woman twenty years his junior. They both attend his ex-wife’s funeral and continue with life with the fateful direction of sitting in the presidency. While acting as president, a terrorist group blows up two nuclear plants and threatens to hijack more. With the same casualness of producing a son, the President lightly assesses the situation, which paints him as the man he truly is.

He’s a stubborn man is his later years. He was once mildly uxorious but transmogrified into something blunter, more forward. As an example to his stubbornness during his convalescence, he says, “I am entitled to the integrity of my prophylaxis.” (pg115)

William’s attitude towards tackling major issues is relative to his attitude towards his sex life, which Malzberg isn’t timid writing about in detail (sometimes too graphically, too detailed, too unnecessary). The serious issues, like the intimacy experienced with a wife, are taken vulgarly and off-hand. Oppositely, the lighter issues, such as detailing his memoirs, are taken with single-minded ferociousness.
EXIT William Eric Springer

William’s sexuality characterizes him to a great degree so the sex scenes are validated, but the carnality of some of the scenes is a bit much. The Last Transaction is a 163-page characterization of a growingly blunt man, sinking into senility, resistive of advice, and indolent with sexual reminiscing.

More Malzberg novels is a must for me if his knack for characterization is prevalent in his other works but, hopefully, will lessen the sexuality to a more acute degree.

Friday, November 11, 2011

2010: Hull Zero Three (Bear, Greg)

Internalizing the essence of exploration and fear (5/5)
From July 21, 2011


It appears that Hull Zero Three hasn't been very well received on Amazon and that's pretty sad. I greatly anticipated its release and was mystified by the Vine program's negative feedback. To truly appreciate Hull Zero Three, I think the reader needs to meet two criteria, like myself:
1) The reader needs to understand most of Greg Bear's work, including his 1980s and 1990s grand space spectacles of The Way series and Forge of God series). Also, the reader must feel distanced by Bear's work since the millennium (Quantico, Vitals and especially City at the End of Time). This will give you a proper lead-up to what Bear has accomplished and why Hull Zero Three is a return to his grand tradition of space spectacles.

2) The reader must be disappointed in the state of the art of American science fiction. I don't read any of the stuff since the millennium as there's been a preferred chasm of difference with British SF. US SF tends to have very short paragraphs with lots of dialogue and it nearly always reads like a Hollywood scrip for people with short attention spans.

NOW, open up the deliciously ambiguous book entitled Hull Zero Three. Granted, from the onset, the initial "man wakes up on ship with amnesia" isn't exactly unique but banish that from your feeble mind as the subject is at the masterful (er, with the exception of End of Time) hands of Greg Bear. Like the main character, Teacher, we, too are borne unto this novel with little knowledge of what is happening but we grow to understand the environment, the dangers, the expectations and direction: where the Teacher learns so the reader, where the Teacher panics so the reader panics. Identify with this: "I'm just a pair of eyes on the end of a stalk of neck with a brain and some hands and legs attached."

I won't to expose too much detail about the greater scene of the book because it's important that the reader, like to protagonist, learns as he/she goes. So, to just glance over the plot, here it is: Three separate hulls are on a 500-hundred-year journey to inhabit the stars. Something has gone wrong, albeit a malicious deviation of course or a natural phenomenon. People are being awoken, these people are being killed by the Ships machines. On board is the entire Gene Pool of earth and the landing crew will make use of this gene pool to adapt to the environment of the one planet they will fall upon. They have only the one shot to establish their civilization.

I must mention the Gene Pool part of the plot because it's by far the most titillating potential in the entire book. Stop and think about the variation of life on earth and how, in the future, it may be possible to alter man in any way, always abiding by the gene pool, to suit Man for life on other planets. Hull Zero Three visits some minor shifts in the human DNA but always tiptoes around some of the more exotic spectrum of what humans could become. The details revolving around this 500-year trip and the gene pool are hugely enticing and very rewarding.

Like mentioned in criterion #2, Hull Zero Three is unlike anything the US SF has recently produced (this includes Vinge and the peripheral Star Wars, Star Trek and Halo series). No author has gotten it right except for our friends across the pond, many of whom I'm a great fan of: Banks, Hamilton, Reynolds, Stross. Greg Bear writes in a style similar to the British friends, where there is more of a focus on describing environment, emotion, experience and detail with longer paragraphs, more internal monologue and less frivolous chit-chat.

"Exploring," in his purest essence, isn't about banally chatting about what you're seeing... it's about internalizing the experience and relating yourself to your surroundings. Much like Hull Zero Three - you'll explore the Ship (Hulls One AND Three!) through the internalized experience of Teacher. However, you'll also be grappling with the fear of death, dismemberment, starvation and suffocation. Great contrast.

2011: Humanity's Fire 3: The Ascendant Stars (Cobley, Michael)

Book 3: Out of the Blue Heroics (2/5)

I had read Book Two in about 4-5 days and had little problem following the braided plot threads. The day after I finished Book 2 I started Book 3 and finished it in three days. It would be logical to think that I had a flawless grasp as soon as I laid my eyes upon page 1... and yet, I was shaking my head and putting the book down again and again through the first 150 pages (of 467 total pages). It was a very frustrating 1-star beginning that held little hope of rising from its own ashes. Somewhere along the remaining over-sized and somewhat bloated pages, a dwarf of a phoenix rose and whimpered.

The first third of the book is bogged down by the compound difficulties in trying to understand the character fragmentation of Robert Horst and Julia Bryce and their respective plunges into the hyperspace-tiers/Godhead and the tiernet/Glow. The physical/virtual and embodiment/disembodiment of the two characters in these bizarre landscapes is most frustrating. Eventually, Julia's plot thread begins to become a little clearer while Robert's thread maintains its reality detachment until the very end. If you can follow those two threads alone, then the rest of the book is a cakewalk. Just be prepared for the last second heroics of Kao Chih and Henry and the late and abrupt predictable deaths of two adversaries (will be most displeased). And if you usually have difficulty in following plot lines, don't worry- it seems as if the plot is recapped every chapter as the character perspective is shifted.

Greg is in orbit around Darien for most of the book, trying to out-think various intruders, making alliances with numerous orbital participants and trying to survive the ever-growing military presence of the Hegemony. Theo and Rory are still hunkered down in and around Tusk Mountain while the Knight of the Legion of Avatars sits quietly around his fortress awaiting the arrival of his cybernetic counterparts from the depths of hyperspace Abyss. Kao Chih plays a very limited role in the plots unraveling but the Roug bring their technological prowess to the table to help out here and there. Chel and Kuros, too, play smaller roles while Cat sits upon her moon readying herself for the inevitable battle.

The prologues for Book 2 and Book 3 held a tantalizing clue about the Hyperion AI 150 years ago and its involvement with the great AI presence in the plot. I thought the prologues would eventually be woven into the greater scope of things but, in the end, the prologues were merely bits of interesting data relating to the early strike of the Darien colony. I had high hopes.

Like Book 2, Book 3 has symptoms of "deus ex machina" with the unforeseen, miraculous unveiling of the space-fold bomb (also later unhyphenated as "spacefold bomb") and the Roug smartgun. Not only are a few technological wonders dropped onto the scene, also small-bit but big-moving players are dropped in right as the most incredible moments.

Book 3 is a tad more consistent than Book 2 except for a few things which caught my meticulous eye: sometimes subspace is used to describe a communications network but hyperspace is used for transportation... are the two one-in-the-same? Why can a hyperdrive descend to Tier1 hyperspace but unable to go further to Tier2, and how can an impromptu adjustment allow it to descend even further? Regarding the Enhanced and referring to page 27, how could the Enhanced "undergone genetic engineering in the embryonic stage" yet still be "either an orphan or signed over"? If the engineering was done prenatally, then the Enhanced were obviously pre-selected, thereby they wouldn't have to be orphaned or signed over. Minor, I know.

One additional miff is found on page 127 where Captain Velazquez says he, "Lost over a seventh" of this complement (one-seventh = 14.28%). If the loss was more than one-seventh, why not just say one-sixth (one-sixth = 16.66%) which is a mere 2.38 percentage points more than one-seventh? One-seventh is a strange fraction to use, when "one-sixth" or "half of one-third" would have been equally as useful (sometimes I hate being the author of math textbooks).

Ascendant Stars isn't an out-right dud, a shame I rarely bestow upon any novel I can finish. If you can follow the first 150 pages better than I can AND not mind the continuation of the deus ex machina, then you'll probably enjoy the book more than I did. I look forward to seeing some more science fiction from this author. A one-off, all inclusive novel would be great to see, something which allows for a greater control over consistency in word usage, dialogue, historical background and fraction usage :p

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

2010: Humanity's Fire 2: Orphaned Worlds (Cobley, Michael)

Book 2: Heavy on the "deus ex machina" (3/5)


I had read Book One, Seeds of Earth, two months ago but I found it hard to start to get into Book Two right from the start. The character appendix in the back of the novel was too limited to refresh one's memory and the additional species appendix was just a terse blurb about the average height, body hair distribution, locomotion and vision of each species. A heftier appendix would have been much appreciated but instead the reader is left with a rather unhelpful few pages.

Once the plot gets moving, the bits and pieces from Book One begin to slowly fall back into place. Like Book One, each chapter shifts point of view between the characters and in Book Two we experience about nine perspectives. Like Space Opera ought to be, it's a large platter to eyes and mind to digest. As a means of synopsis, I'll review the nine perspective alphabetically and sequentially:

1) Cat has risen to become the keeper of the forest on the Nivyesta moon, where she witnesses the continual destruction of the forests by invading forces. 2) Chel assumes the role of middle-man between the Sentinel and Greg as the both begin to understand their true role. 3) Greg is the head of the rebel force on Darien and continues to hide and resist the Brolturan forces. 4) Julia and her Enhanced counterparts are raided by pirates and forced to use their minds for the evil purposes an organized quasi-religious cult. 5) Kao Chih remains a pawn in the great game of the galaxy he he finds himself used yet again, this time as he visits his home world. 6) The Knight of the Legion of Avatars is still striving for access to the warpwell through victories and setbacks after arriving on Darien. 7) Kuros, the Sendrukan occupier on Darien, maintains a calm demeanor even amid critical appraisal of his activities surrounding the warpwell. 8) Robert, the ex-Ambassador from Earth, continues his ethereal journey through the scores of tiers of hyperspace in search of deities and salvation. 9) Theo leaves his world of Darien for the realms of space with the captured Tygran soldier and his cohorts who aim to overthrown Marshel Becker.

Some of these storylines cross paths and some diverge through the 603 pages of text but there are two separate lines of activity going on. The one line Chel, Greg, Kuros and Cat limits itself to the planet of Darien is, for about 90% of the book, keeps a fairly low profile with more suspense building that actually getting things done. The other line of activity rests with Kao Chih and Theo, who are traversing the great expanse of the galaxy from base, to planet, to orbital and back again all the while collecting more minor characters amid minor skirmishes and observations... which is exactly the more exciting line of activity where the "deus ex machina" pops in.

OK, it's science fiction. All the sciences of ancient races can't exactly be known to everyone (especially the reader) and these science can seem like magic sometimes, as it has been said by Clarke. But when beams lock-out ship control, when wormholes are spawned between ships, when hyperspace missiles go undetected, when psi-symbiotic motes repel any given attack, when a handmade remote control tricks surveillance, when a pilot casually records and loops video footage... the long combination of the easy use of technology at hand teeters on unbelievability. One or two technological punches through the plot would have been acceptable but the wanton use of it is sloppy.

One more paragraph with minor quips... I felt that the pages from 150 to 160 were inconsistent with the rest of the book. The plot went through a transition from being like Book One to being inconsistent with its precursor. For example: After page 153 the now-dead drone of Drazuma-Ha* loses the star at the end of its name. The once amicable relationship between Greg and Chel begins to feel washed out after they urbanely reunite and exchange cold greetings on page 158. The dialogue between Kao Chih and Silveira seems to be missing another paragraph or two as Silveira refers to something Kao Chih didn't even mention (pages 150-151). Again, minor gripes but a little sloppy.

Not bad at all. A little long winded with all the inclusions of the ever present deus ex machina, but nevertheless it's an eye-opening space opera- it offers a sense of wonder at the array of species, planets, customs, modes of thought and visions of the future. Sometimes it's difficult to understand what the F is going on (like all the oddities down there in Hyperspace) but in the end I'm left wanting more. Bait and hook... ready for Book Three!

2009: Humanity's Fire 1: Seeds of Earth (Cobley, Michael)

Book 1: Almost too much to absorb (3/5)
From September 15, 2011
 
This is my first Michael Cobley novel as I'm sure it's the first of many who choose to begin this trilogy of Humanity's Fire. Like other trilogies (Cosmonaut Keep [The Engines of Light, Book 1] to name one) or quadrilogies (Lords of the Middle Dark [Rings of the Master, Book 1] to name another) I've completed, Seeds of Earth has the same problem of getting the plot off the launchpad when weighed down with a load of new characters, a shipment of proper nouns and crates full of exotic aliens, planets, flora, fauna, honorific titles... I could go on. It's one of those books which is difficult to find a toehold. It's also one of those books which lends itself to be read in one week in order for the reader to fully understand the setting Cobley has just placed.

The 9-page prologue of Seeds of Earth takes place on Mars when the Solar System is under attack by the Achorga Swarm. Plans have been made to launch fifteen arks to save humanity in case the Swarm prevails. The Swarm has been virulently persistent to only allow humanity to construct and launch three arks. Chapter One opens 150-years after the ark Hyperion has made landfall on the planet Darien. The mix of Scots, Scandinavians and Russians settle the hospitable planet and befriend a race of intelligent bipeds who inhabit the breathable atmosphere of moon.

Living in ignorance about the fate of the earth and the two other arks, the tiny outpost somewhat flourishes. Politics plays a big role in Book One, but not to the extent of what MacLeod includes in his novels (but you can bet they both emphasis the Scottish accent!). I'm not sure why a small outpost needs eight-story building with elevators. I ask the question: Did they strip the ark of the elevator of did they manufacture it? And if they stripped the ark, why did they put the elevator in something as unimportant as an apartment building? Much of the description of the infrastructure of the colony seems unrealistic for only be in operation for 150 years. The citizens also travel by dirigible. I'm getting sick of dirigibles.

Lemme see... only two of the cast have idiosyncrasies enough to be sympathetic with:
There's Kao Chih who's on a long, long journey from his domain (no plot spoiler here) and keeps running into difficulties including a menacing human, menacing pirates and menacing droids. Seems like deep space is a scary place to traverse... honest enough Kao Chih just keeps going in honor of his ancestors. However, one niggling detail remained: when the craft left its main port, it had six days of food for the two crew members. Later, it's quoted as having enough food for three months and nine days at quarter rations for one person. I can't massage those numbers!
Then there's Earthspace ambassador who carries around a virtual simulation of his dead daughter and plays chess with her, even when there's company around. Sounds kind of a disappointment to the government of Earth.

The writing style isn't as grandiose as Banks or as techy as Hamilton... it lays somewhere in between, but I much prefer the lengthy prose of Banks above all others. That said, Seeds of Earth doesn't have loquacious paragraphs like much of modern British Space Opera uses. The vocabulary isn't as challenging as Revelation Space or The Algebraist, but still maintains a certain sophistication. One more niggling point was the 3-time use of the word "concertaed" when describing the operation of a door (which fondly reminds me of Delanay's "the door dilated").

It's definitely NOT bad. It's just unfortunate the the trilogy has to start somewhere! Judging from the conclusion of Book One, I predict that books two and three will be at least 4-star reads. I've already bought Book Two and I've pre-ordered Book Three. How's that for eager!

Friday, November 4, 2011

1969: Beyond the Beyond (Anderson, Poul)

Two gems at the end of a dusty road (3/5)
From November 22, 2010


With a remarkably terrible beginning to a collection of short stories, I almost gave up hope with Anderson's collection in Beyond the Beyond. I've haven't come across many of his stories in anthologies but because I'm a fan of his linguistic and space opera novels (twelve to date, thank you very much), I decided that a peek into his short story talent might be worthy the effort to hunt down and peruse.

It's only with the last three stories did I begin to enjoy the collection. The Sensative Man has a spy-thriller tone to it with some psychoanalyzation throw into the mix. The Moonrakers in a decent look into the future unfolding of human civilization in the solar system which naturally must include space pirates. Finally, the cherry on top is a story ala Tau Zero; Starfog is heavy in science, astronomy and language and you may even find yourself admiring the minor love story unfolding.

Certainly, there are a large number of short story collections which trump Beyond the Beyond, but this is a keeper for the sheer sake of the last two stories... but mainly Starfog, which has etched into my memory so soon after its completion.

Memory (1957) - 3/5 - Bygone unknowingly colonialists of a galactic empire find themselves in company with a mysterious amnesiac man who is later recaptured with his hopeful wife by the militaristic crew of an empire ship. 36 pages

Brake (1957) - 2/5 - Extremists aboard a vessel inbound to Ganymede pose as passengers and act mutinously to gain control or hold the vessel as hostage from the captain, who isn't taking this kind of thing lightly. 45 pages

Day of Burning (1967) - 1/5 - A supernova is approaching a once studied planet with its' scope of cultures but that datum is dated, where the archaic language is annoying and the dragging politics can... zzz, zzz, zzz. 42 pages

The Sensitive Man (1954) - 3/5 - A man from a psychodynamic institute is kidnapped by a conniving organization who wish to use his skills for world domination but how will the psychodynamist psychoanalyze the psychos? 54 pages

The Moomrakers (1966) - 4/5 - The tri-pillar economies of Mars, Asteroids and
Earth are pinned against one another in a bid to deal with or destroy the pirates which seep the earnings from the respective governments. 33 pages

Starfog (1967) - 5/5 - A seemingly human race appears on an isolated yet inhabited planet and say they have originated from a stellar cluster; a mystery which calls for an educated Ranger and a probe into their culture and history. 56 pages



1964: Three Worlds to Conquer (Anderson, Poul)

Must Read Anderson; Erelong be Smitten (5/5)


I'm a well seasoned in reading Anderson novels, this being my fourteenth. It also happens to have become my favorite Anderson to-date! Tau Zero ranks a close number two and Brain Wave a respectable number three. Three Worlds to Conquer has an intrinsic "oldie" feel to it, perhaps because of its 143-page thickness, its nebulously painted cover or simply because the plot has certain Golden Age qualities to it. Regardless, I'm very fond of this novel as it exudes a certain sexy nostalgia for science and space exploration, something missing in modern science fiction.

Rear cover synopsis:
"JUPITER: where no human could live- but where men had strange allies... and stranger enemies! GANYMEDE: where human settlers lay helpless under the guns of a spaceship directed by a madman! EARTH: freed from a planet-wide tyranny, but facing total destruction for space!
The destiny of these worlds were strangely linked- and in the hands of a man sentenced to instant death!"

Excellent synopsis for a novel! It pulls no strings, doesn't promise anything it can't deliver and offers little hint as to the greater scope of the plot. I tend to read the synopsis AFTER I've read the book because I like to be surprised by the content of the novel... somethings the damn synopses give away everything or promise too much. To further expound:

Mark is a contact specialist of sorts who is in contact with an alien race on the surface (!) of Jupiter. Having created a new language between his own tongue and the aliens tongue, Mark is the best at what he does. He is also skeptical of the arrival of battleship USS Vega at the mining base of Ganymede. The admiral spins a lengthy story of how earth government (controlled by the almighty USA of course) had fallen to rebels. The battleship is on the moon for the sake of taking control of its mining facilities in order to process materials for nuclear weapons so that they can oust the rebels with brute strength. Lorraine is a collaborator with intentions of sabotaging the tyrannical hold the admiral holds over the colony. When Mark and Lorraine conspire together, plans for escape and control grow rapidly.

In a parallel plot, the alien in contact with Mark is named Theor. His Nyarr clan is becoming close to being invaded by the larger, more brutal and uncivilized Ulunt-Khazul clan. The communicator (a neutrino communicator beaming conversations up to Mark) fails to impress the heathens after Theor fails to contact Mark. Thus begins a sea-battle and land-battle amongst the two clans. When Theor is captured, his relationship with his "mind-brother" Mark will be called upon for the sake of both individuals.

I think Anderson had a great thing going with the Theor plot line and having a human plot in parallel to this only strengthened each plot.

Three Worlds to Conquers suffers from one early SF element which plagues other novels but leaves this book without damaging effects: that of the "I got a sudden idea" syndrome, where crafty plans for escape or retribution are fabricated from thin air, bless the ever-whimsical protagonist capable of this feat! One more minor quirks which you'll come across is the 1960s fixation on the infinite wonders of pharmacopoeia. There's always a pill that'll fix something (effects of gravity, banishment of fatigue, unexpression of emotion, etc.). One last irk is one exclusive to Anderson, himself: he loves to use archaic Middle English or Olde English words throughout his early novels be it in dialogue or narration. Here's a short list of annoying words: behoven, erstwhile, yonder, erelong, belike, lest, beset, nigh and (my favorite) thundersmitten.

If you can look past the points above and suspend whatever science knowledge you have about the atmosphere and surface of Jupiter, then you're in a for a excellent action-to-the-last-page novel,easily read in one or two days.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

1974: The Dream Millennium (White, James)

Millennial colonists plagued by nightmares of death (4/5)
From June 30, 2010


James White continues his characteristic plot scheme by involving a doctor and medical science throughout the storyline even though it takes place outside of the Sector General universe. Rear cover synopsis: "Earth was a polluted, dying planet. Violence was rampant and civilization was doomed. If Man was to survive, John Devlin had to find him a new home somewhere in the galaxy. He had 1,000 years to look - and 1,000 years to dream. But all his dreams were nightmares..."

Leaving Earth on a 1,000 year journey to ten solar systems with possibly inhabitable planets, the 200+ colonists of the craft enter a cooldown, where they agelessly sleep away the years only to be occasionally revived every hundred of so years to exercise and to remember. It is during this cooldown when Devlin experiences fantastic dreams of others' lives; of royalty, of saurian origin, of revolution, etc. Why is it that Devlin remembers each dream so vividly and why is it that he can recall pre-departure events just as clearly? His recurrent awakenings probe this mystery as the recall becomes stronger and as he discovers the body of one of his fellow colonists frozen to the cold steel of the bulkhead in an apparent suicide.

The first third of the novel has a bizarre yet wonderful scope involving Delvin's awakenings aboard the craft, his life prior to recruitment and his vicariously realistic dreams. This is entirely rich and vivid; unlike anything White has produced (this being my 7th White novel). The plot is more like a John Brunner novel, involving characters in extraordinary circumstances amidst the stars. The fallacy springs about midway through the novel when the majority of the text starts to focus on the vicarious dreams; life after life after life, only to end in death each time. The spotlight is taken away from the great millennium journey and its righteous goal of establishing a human colony on a distant star when Earth itself is dying.

I can see White's noble approach to probing one man's mind, his dreams and his meaning to the greater extent of the mission at hand. But the repetitious mini-lifetimes doesn't add much depth to the purpose of the very same dreams, which is made a little more clear towards the end of the novel. This journey inwards versus the journey outwards is a decent attempt but overshadowed by Pohl's Gateway, which is pristine in inwardness/outwardness. However, as far as a White novel goes, this is one of his more thoughtful and unique novels.

1988: Federation World (White, James)

Dry dialogue and lube-less action (2/5)

I'm a big James White fan. His Sector General series is a eye-widening look at a huge array of exotic aliens and how they cope with their interactions in times of calm and chaos. While the dialogue is often quite droll and the predicaments predictable, James White still injects some fun into the novels, Final Diagnosis (1997) being the best part of the series that I've read. Lesser know are James White's non-Sector General novels... and of which I've been after for years since reading Final Diagnosis. I've now read 7 of the 11 and I can say that they generally tend to be better written than the Sector General books.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Federation of Galactic Sentients had a mission. As new planets and species were discovered and assessed, the deserving of their populations were invited to move en masse to the fabulous Federation World, a modified Dyson Sphere located in the galactic core.
But not all of the Federation inductees were suited to the idyllic life of the World. Martin and Beth were two of he rare ones chosen instead for the demanding job of First Contact. Their training was extensive, but all too soon the two Earth-humans were out on their own with all of the amazing technology of the Federation at their command.
Martin knew that training was no substitute, for experience. In First Contact, his first mistake would likely be his last..."

White's non-Sector General novels of The Watch Below (1966), Tomorrow is Too Far (1971), and The Dream Millennium (1974) are all maturely written with shared attributes of thoughtfulness and uniqueness- very clever stuff. On the opposite of the coin, there is the dud novel of Lifeboat (1972) which read like an emergency pamphlet on an airplane- dry and informative. Along similar lines, Federation World comes off as dry and informative.

Federation World isn't a fix-up novel but it certainly reads like one.
1) After Martin and Beth have been selected as First Contact specialists and go through their training, they are prepared for their first mission (38 pages).
2) Visiting a bipedal, four-armed race with a master/slave society bent of matters of "hearsay," Martin must decide whether of not to allow the society to continue as is or to instruct the leaders to change course in order to meet demands for Citizenship appraisal (55 pages).
3) Immediately after this intervention, Martin and Beth must appraise the elusive intelligent subterranean life on a vacation-like planet: breezy, bountiful and eerily quite. The xenophobic burrowers have no sight and rely merely upon their heightened sense of touch for communication, subterranean navigation and technology (55 pages).
4) The next 135 pages, or nearly half of the entire novel rest with the contact made on a planet already visited by the Federation. Martin and Beth are to re-assess those who still dwell on the planet three generations after the initial contact, descendants of the once Undesirables. Indeed, what Martin witnesses on the planet is an de-evolution of society from the Undesirables. This race, hard-lining the need to return obligations, teeters on the brink of self-destruction.

While five aliens are on the cover of the novel, only three are covered with the most inventive being the burrowers. The other aliens have their quirks but ultimately don't seem alien enough. They have human ideas, human reflections in their speech and are easy to converse with. I've always had a problem with books which treated translation of alien languages as a simple delineation of logic from a few given words. Ugh, what a crock! Even some Earth languages are difficult to translate to English, and those are both terrestrial! So I hate the way White handles the language with such ease as having the computer translate everything into impeccable yet dearly dry English. The dialogue alone kills any enjoyment of this novel.

One additional factor that capsizes the enjoyment of Federation World is the inclusion of an action lengthener, such as "Wait, we have another problem.." or "Oh, one more thing....". It seems like a cascade of folly for the the hopeless First Contact specialists. Pragmatic and tactful as they are, you wouldn't want to invite them to a dinner party as they'd just drag it out to a ridiculous degree and bore you the entire time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

1999: Good Old-fashioned Future (Sterling, Bruce)

Internet boom inspired geekiness (3/5)

This collection definitely has a mid-90s internet boom feel to it. Bruce Sterling is a futurist so his writing style is embedded with loaded terminology, peripheral technologies, acronyms, gadgets and slang. Sterling takes an idea, runs full throttle with it, dragging along an arm full of other odd concepts and usually ends up swerving all over the place when he SHOULD be slowing it down and enjoying the scenery a bit. It's all a bit rush-rush with these stories. Maybe one or two rush-rush, get-things-done, wham-bam sort of stories in the collection would be interesting, but I guess you really have to be into this sort of thing to actually enjoy it.

His prose isn't very creative. He writes stories around ideas, not stories around words or people. Sterling likes to throw in paragraphs of technical explanation, either in narrative form or in (eek!) the middle of dialogue. It's like he took footnote information from a journal and pasted it into the story. It makes the story flow very herky-jerky.

It's all a bit too geeky for me, as if Sterling is merely writing for himself, as if he's just playing with the ideas in his head for his own amusement and putting it on paper. If zaniness is what you're craving then Adam Johnson, is his collection Emporium (2002), did much of the same thing but it was much better honed than what Sterling here has produced. If futurist ideas is what you're after, then Gibson's Burning Chrome (1986) would be a better purchase.

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Maneki Neko (1998) - 5/5 - International ring of a social network of gift-giving/tax evasion catches the eye of an American assistant federal prosecutor. When Tsuyoshi,  a digital video converter by trade, finds himself involved in the prosecutor's arrival, it's discovered that the gifts aren't the only thing the network shares. 19 pages

Big Jelly (1994) - 2/5 - An artificial squid scientist sends a sample to an oil tycoon who joins forces with him to create an exotic range of transparent squid for commercial retail. Unfortunately, the helium that the squids ingest is causing a problem or two. 48 pages

The Littlest Jackal (1996) - 2/5 - A Finnish island separatist group hires an old terrorist to head a scheme revolving around the exploitation of a senile cartoonist and her intellectual rights in order to sue the producers of merchandisers in Japan. The cash will then be laundered through digital currency exchange on the to-be fledgling island nation. 54 pages

Sacred Cow (1993) - 3/5 - Bollywood mega-producer filming movies #127-130 is in England where 90% of the population had perished from Mod Cow disease decades ago. 19 pages

Deep Eddy (1993) - 3/5 - An American travels to Germany to deliver a book to the Culture Critic and is assigned a pretty female bodyguard with a savvy mind for security. With the city in anticipation of a destructive orgy, security and anonymity are essential for the delivery of the package. 47 pages

Bicycle Repairman (1996) - 3/5 - Sexually uninterested bicycle repair guy living off the grid becomes the center of attention of a female government agent after receiving a fairly innocuous-looking cable box in the mail from his ex-roommate Deep Eddy. 41 pages

Taklamakan (1998) - 4/5 - NAFTA Black Ops Pete and Katrinko should abandon their mission after their contact in the remote Asian Sphere desert dies in a crash. With punctual curiosity, the two investigate the huge domes finding that the ones they break into are just the usual nuclear waste dumps; except dome #13 which is home to two corpses and a deep, deep well which is, itself, home to as many mysteries as a 100-megaton nuked out subterranean bubble can hold. 51 pages

Friday, October 28, 2011

1966: Farewell, Earth's Bliss (Compton, D.G.)

Cast of Simple yet Complex Convicts (4/5)

This is my introductory Compton novel but the author supposedly has many other excellent titles. Since those titles are out of my reach for now, Farewell is my first Compton novel.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The time is the future; space travel has encompasses Mars, finding it barren, without mineral resources, useful only as a dumping ground for socially unacceptable humanity -- a latter-day convict settlement.

A new shipload ot deportees lands, and the twenty-four new colonists, male and female alike, have to adjust themselves to the harsh life here, and to the unexpected new social patterns that have developed for defense against the hostile Martian environment. Before long, as the colony is shaken by dangers from within and without, the struggle becomes the most basic of all -- not for comfort, but for survival itself."

This Ace edition synopsis does the 188-page novel no justice. The synopsis above is a flat, unemotional copy written by a desk jockey and doesn't even attempt to set itself apart from all the other Mars novels at the time (such as 1964's Martian Time-Slip and 1969's The Sirens of Titan). If it would have cost more than one dollar, I wouldn't have bothered stocking it on my shelves with a lame synopsis like that. I've got a better one:

Spending nearly ten weeks cooped up in a cylindrical inter-planter javelin, the twenty-four social criminals are at their wits end. Having landed on Mars safely enough, they are met by the convict colony representatives who are both terse and unemotional. The representatives take the haul of food back to the colony while the recent arrivals wait for supportive assistant... until "the arrival of a dust storm. Visibility outside the space craft was down to a matter of inches. The dust storm stayed for thirty-seven day." With their numbers thinned, the surviving nine new-comers find their place in the colony, learning that maintaining the status quo is to survive. To err it to risk taking "the cold way out."

The slim thickness of the novel is misleading as the contents of the novel are quite complex. Of the nine surviving arrivals, seven or eight of them become central characters along with one or two other convicts already stationed in the colony. As a matter of plot device seeking to keep anonymity among the convicts, each space-borne convict is given a biblical name. The banality of the naming compounded by the numerous cast had me reaching for a pen to keep track of their names. These aren't cardboard cut-outs either, they are fairly well fleshed out:
Mark: once democratic leader, justice seeker
Issac: once cocky, now bed-ridden
Simon: illusionary charm, sly, racist
Jacob: black, non-confrontational, internally demonized
Ruth: judgmental and observant, yet crass
Joshua: artistic, cynical, pragmatic
Paul: delusional, self-proclaimed prophet
David: once the second in command
Martha: liberal American spinster

I use the word "black" above but Compton uses "Negro" and two of the less-tolerant characters use the N-word. It's thrown around quite heavily in a few passages and it characterizes Jacob as the prosecuted yet innocent victim. While ethic diversity isn't appreciated on my Mars colony, the acceptance of sexual orientation is unheard of with the penalty for simply being homosexual is "the cold way out." I don't think Compton is reflecting his opinion in this novel, but merely using lack of acceptance as a ploy to show the bigotry and simple-mindedness of the convict hierarchy.

It's a slow read at times, where I didn't know which route the plot was taking but little did I know that I was the one who was going for the ride. Like one quote on the cover states, it "quasi-Kafkaesque" and the last-page conclusion will have you nodding with understanding, rather than approval. Further Compton read are a must for me (Thanks Boaz!)