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.