Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fallen Angels

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Flynn
Completed 6/11/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
3 stars

I hate writing reviews so long after reading a book.  Unless I’m actively thinking about a book during that time, I lose so many of my thoughts.  I finished this book a week ago, but I simply didn’t have the time to sit down and collect my thoughts.  Finally, I have the time.  I’ll try my best to convey why I think this book is a three star book.

The premise is pretty interesting.  In the future, environmentalists have gained power in the government and stopped global warming.  Unfortunately, that restarted the ice age that was being held back by the rising temperatures.  The environmentalists are also luddites, eschewing technology in most forms.  They’ve even outlawed science fiction because it condones the use of technology.  The inhabitants of a space station, Freedom, became an independent nation, refusing to return to a country that bans technology.  While they are more or less self-sufficient, they occasionally need nitrogen from the atmosphere to replenish their supply.  To get the essential gas, they send down a ship to scoop it up and return it to the station.

The story opens with one such mission to get nitrogen, but the spaceship is shot down and the two spacemen land on the North Dakota Glacier.  A rag-tag group of science fiction fans from a convention race to the rescue of these fallen angels.  But can they get them back to their space station before the government finds and arrests the angels?

The plot is pretty humorous and by admission of the authors, it is a satire on environmentalist extremism.  On that note, I think the book hasn’t held up well over time.  Environmentalists today are not the luddites that they may have been 30 years ago.  But the satire is still funny despite the aging. 

The best part of the book is the SF convention jokes.  They’re not even jokes, Niven et al. caught the nature of conventions.  From the description of the people to the chaos of the convention, it is a slice of what conventions are really like.  It should be noted that the convention is being done in secret, because of the government’s ban on SF. 

As I mentioned before, the book hasn’t aged well.  For example, fax machines are still in use and cell phones didn’t evolve.  However, it is surprisingly close to the current real world anti-science government that is creating the global warming backlash.  And I don’t think there is any science these days indicating that we are on the brink of a postponed ice age.


I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s fun, even though some of the parallels to our current government is a little depressing.  It’s dated and the science is dubious.  But most importantly, it’s about the fans of SF being the heroes of their own SF adventure.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Diabols

R.W. Mackelworth
Completed 6/17/2017, reviewed 6/18/2017
1 star

This book was a gift.  The giver said here’s some bona fide pulp science fiction from the 60’s.  Enjoy.  Well.  No.  It’s pulp alright, but that’s the best thing that can be said about it.  Even though it was a short book, a novelette perhaps, it dragged on and on.  It was practically incomprehensible.  It was the worst book I’ve read in years.  And a warning, there's a spoiler in this review.

The only reason I can give a plot summary is because there was one on the book’s back cover.  Boraston is a teacher who gets transported into an eerie world where there are these creatures called Diabols.  They are made of light, like shimmering jewels, but their light kills.  Boraston seems to be immune to these death rays, having survived a fire unscathed in his own place and time.  He’s given a mission to transport a group of children across the barrens.  That evolves into destroying the Diabol nests.  In the meantime, he’s trying to save the children after they’ve been captured by the Corps. 

The writing is awful.  The author uses tons of adverbs.  His favorite was “blackly”, as in “The lines separated the sky blackly”.  Yeah, what does that even mean.  I realize adverbs were used more frequently in the past, but they are all over the place and make for very complicated sentences.  There’s almost no character development.  There were only a few characters, but I had a terrible time keeping them distinct.  And there are simply times where the transitions between sentences and paragraphs just don’t make sense.  It’s more like reading a dream.


Oops.  Spoiler.  Aw, what the hell.  The book is so rare, most people aren’t going to read it.  And I would steer anyone away from this book if you had any interest in reading it.  I give this book one star out of five.  Really, it’s half a star, but some of the sites I post to don’t allow for halves.  So if you see this book in a used book store, don’t buy it.  It’s not worth the effort.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer
Completed 6/4/2017 Reviewed 6/5/2017
1 star

Reading this book was one of the most unenjoyable experiences of my literary life.  It made me feel stupid.  It was so complex, I could really only follow one of the plotlines.  The other plotlines lost me by about the hundredth page.  I finished the book, hoping for some clarity.  Little came.  I think the only reason I understood the book as much as I did was because I read lots and lots of reviews for the book and I looked for the cues in the text to reinforce the understanding I got from those reviews.  For my review, I’ll do the best I can conveying the plot summaries.  

The setting is four hundred years in the future when there are no more nations.  People belong to one of seven global organizations which provide a sort of citizenship, but can live anywhere they want.  There are no gender references.  Everyone is referred to by they or them.  However the narrator refers to the characters as he or she depending on the behavioral characteristics of the person, not the physical gender.  For the most part, the gender references are easy to follow.

The main plot, I think, is that there is a thirteen year old “boy”, Bridger, who has the ability to imbue life in inanimate objects, for example a doll or plastic soldiers.  He is being kept and hidden by a powerful family unit, protecting him from the outside world where they fear people will use Bridger’s powers for evil before good.  The story of the boy is being told by Mycroft Canner, a criminal who has been sentenced to walk the earth doing good things for others.  He (I think Mycroft is a he) spends a lot of time with this family.  He has provides a lot of support and holds the trust of Bridger.

The narrator also conveys the other plot, which dominates the book, but I think is supposed to be secondary to Bridger’s story.  This plot is about the theft of a list of the most influential people on Earth.  This list bears great influence and the theft is a society-shattering event.  Considering this took up most of the book, this is what lost me.  This mystery is shrouded in political intrigue, which I found completely boring. 

The form of this book is that it is supposed to be written as a piece of eighteenth century literature, including the narrator speaking to the audience and the audience answering back.  This breaking of the fourth wall was sometimes interesting, but often annoying.  It made the following of the complicated intrigue that much more difficult.

I also didn’t like the prose.  Rather than helping the scene, I often found it distracting and occasionally pompous.  At times it reminded me of Michael Chabon, looking for new similes to use in his descriptions.  Once or twice, you stop and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to describe this” but then after a while, you just feel like Palmer is simply showing off.  For me, there’s a fine line between good and obnoxious prose.  It’s tough to describe where that line is, but this crossed it. 

There are a lot of characters in the book.  Palmer spends a lot of time explaining what they’re wearing.  It was tough to actually imagine the characters because you didn’t know if the character was male or female, so the type of clothing worn often seemed irrelevant.  In addition to the live characters, Palmer brings in several philosophers of the eighteenth century including Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade.  I actually enjoyed some of the philosophy talk.  But even that got to be too much.  I often lost the point of bringing up the philosopher to begin with. 


I give this book one stars out of five.  In my opinion, it is just too complicated a story for me.  Too many characters, too much politics, too many plot lines, and a challenging form.  And I don’t like being made to feel stupid.  I know a lot of people love it or hate it, but apparently enough people loved it to get it a Hugo nomination.  I wouldn’t vote for it.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley
Completed 5/27/2017, Reviewed 5/29/2017
5 stars

I first read “Brave New World” in high school.  I thought it was an amazing book.  The cloning, the drug use to cope with issues, and the free love all just blew my mind.  I read it for an English class with the assignment of critiquing a book of our choice.  It was freshman year, and I couldn’t get the book report format out of my head.  I think I got a B on the assignment, but I always remembered that I didn’t do the homework correctly.  Now, forty years later, I’m critiquing books once or twice a week.  And this time I’ve come around full circle to an old friend.


The book is about a future dystopia.  People are no longer born.  They are cloned and decanted.  There is a caste system that creates five different types of people depending on how much oxygen starvation and alcohol immersion the embryos received.  The caste system satisfies the need to have people of different levels performing all the different tasks of modern society, from the uber-privileged to near non-functional.  All people however are conditioned to love their class, to consume as much as possible, and to use a legal drug called soma to cope with unpleasant things.

The plot follows several people who are Alphas, the highest caste, and their misadventures in the dystopia.  Specifically, Bernard and Lenina take a trip to a Zuni reservation, a “savage” land outside their modern world, and find an upper caste woman who was left there 18 years ago, and her naturally born son.  They bring Linda and John back to society.  Everyone wants to meet John the Savage.  He becomes the toast of London. No one wants to meet his mother because she has become old, ugly, and because being a mother is a vile thing in this society.  Of course, a clash of cultures ensues.

This read through, I still find the book to be quite astonishing.  While we don’t clone people, yet, I believe we do a lot of social conditioning that keeps people in their places.  Sometimes I think we might as well have a caste system.  I’m not cricitizing people for what they do, but rather the society at large that treats people of different skill sets poorly, and even more apropos to today’s headlines, people of different ethnic backgrounds.

In other issues brought about in the book, one can liken the use of soma to the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana.  From a different and perhaps a more profound perspective, maybe today’s soma is anti-depressants, government-approved ways to cope with the miseries of life today. 

The one thing I think is different is the free love issue.  While there is promiscuity and always has been, I believe that unlike the book’s government approved attitude toward sex, our society has a veneer of puritan or Victorian mores.  That’s perhaps even worse because it creates a society of shame rather than a healthy attitude toward sex.  But of course, talking about sex is a mine field waiting to happen.  What I do believe about the book is that the laissez-faire attitude reduces the significance sex, which is already reduced by the use of cloning for reproduction.

I would like to have read Brave New World Revisited, Huxley’s essay from the 50’s where he compares his predictions in the novel to where modern society had come.  That’s because, as you can see its effect on me, the book draws the reader into comparing it to their time.  I easily forgive the flaws of the book because I’m spending so much time comparing it to what I perceive is society now.

As a book, it holds up very well.  It is still very readable, for the most part.  I have to say I had a hard time with some of the exposition.  Most significantly, the first part of the book is a little dull.  It explains the use of cloning by sending a class of new doctors through the cloning center.  I found it hard to follow at times, not because of the science, but because of the way it was written.  I also found the big exposition at the end a little hard to read.  There it was the philosophy that was tough to get through.  Aside from these two areas, though, the book is an easy read. 

The character development is decent.  I dare say it was easy because so many of the characters are quite shallow and naïve.  Even Bernard, who is ridiculed for looking at life more deeply than everyone else, is still comparatively shallow.  Only John the Savage looks at life deeply, keeping him at odds with everyone else.  And John is naïve as well, but in a different way than that of the society around him.  That is what causes the conflict.

One thing that I find rather amusing at this point is the naming of the characters.  A lot of people are named after communists.  I think it is funny because I can see a society like this be the outcome of capitalism gone mad, the ultimate consumerism, a complete throw-away society, rather than communism.  In fact, it sort of reminds me of the Science Fiction film, “They Live”, where everything has subliminal messages in it to consume. 


I had a tough time deciding how many stars to give this book.  I settled on five because I still believe it is a classic of science fiction.  It forces the reader to reflect on what a utopia is and is not, and what direction society is moving.  As I mentioned earlier, the book makes me overlook its flaws to focus on its relevance.  I do think the book has a few flaws, but it is one of the best dystopian novels of our time.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Becky Chambers
Completed 5/21/2017, reviewed 5/21/2017
4 stars

I don’t think I can say I hate space opera anymore.  I’ve enjoyed too many in recent months.  Here’s another.  What sets this apart though is that it is more of a character study than a plot driven story.  The book tells the tale of the crew of the Wayfarer on its year long journey to a new planet in the galactic alliance, where it will punch a new wormhole into the fabric of space.  The episodic chapters are little vignettes, almost like short stories, which give us a little more insight into the characters of the crew.

I’ve read quite a few reviews of the book, many of which compare it to Firefly or Farscape.  What I think promotes this view is that the book is written, as I mentioned earlier, episodically which makes it feel like your reading the script for a season of a TV series.  There may be more similarities to these programs, but I don’t know those enough to compare.  What I do know is that I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the characters. 

What surprised me the most about the book is that most of the characters are nice.  They have become like a family in their closeness.  There’s one character who’s very ornery, but even he comes around through the episode where he’s featured.  It’s quite a change from your standard space opera where everyone is dark, where even the good guys have a dark edge to them.  I’m not saying they are Mary Sues’, but it made me feel good to get involved with the characters.  And, okay, one of the characters is rather perky.  Along the same vein, there is a surprisingly little amount of blood and guts. 

Perhaps most interestingly, there are some inter-species relationships.  I think they are handled very well.  The crew is a diverse collection of human and non-human members.  The aliens are particularly well drawn.  Sissix was my favorite of all the aliens.  Sissix has scales and claws and comes from a culture with complex family groupings.  This world building was very interesting and Sissix just stuck out for me as the best of the bunch. 


I give this book four stars out of five.  I read this book because its sequel was nominated for a Hugo, and I’m on a kick to read the Hugo nominees this year.  So of course I have to read the first book before the sequel, right?  I obviously haven’t read the second book yet, but I’m surprised this book was not nominated for a Hugo, though who’s to say what might have been if the rabid puppies hadn’t hijacked some of the nominations.  I think this book should have been a contender.   It’s a fun read with great charactes, aliens, and world-building.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K Dick
Completed 5/13/2017 Reviewed 5/15/2017
4 stars

Another wild book from Philip K Dick.  The world has become hot and crowded.  The UN drafts people to relocate to other planets and moons to alleviate the population and environmental crisis.  But life on the alien worlds is tough and degrading.  To avoid despair, people use a drug called Can-D which creates the illusion that you are on earth via a tableau of Barbie- and Ken-type dolls and accessories.  Palmer Eldritch returns from a ten year trip to Proxima Centauri with a potential rival product called Chew-Z which doesn’t require the tableaus.  The makers of Can-D are threatened by Chew-Z, but find a much more sinister relationship between the new drug, its users, and Eldritch. 

The book is short, only about 230 pages, but it is chock full of weirdness.  The above synopsis just gives you a taste of the plot.  There is so much going on, like the main character Barney Mayerson who is a procog, that is, he can see the future, who works for the Can-D company predicting what products will become good sellers for the Perky Pat tableaus.  He’s having an affair with another precog, but regrets leaving his wife.  His character is really well drawn.  While some of the other characters are a little bit like cardboard cutouts, like Barney’s boss Leo, a cigar-chompin’ stereotypical boss from the ‘50s, they are still interesting and infused with lots of detail. 

Once again, Dick tackles religion and God as he did in the last book I read, Deus Irae.  Here, it comes in various forms, including the religion that pops up around the Perky Pat and Can-D experiences.  But the big theological question surrounds the nature of Palmer Eldritch.  Is he really still Palmer Eldritch, or had he been taken over by an alien on his space trip?  And for that matter, is he now a god, or some type of supreme being?   And does Chew-Z create a spiritual experience or is it just a hallucination? 

The questions are tough and not so easily answered.  As the book progresses, the blur between reality and hallucination becomes more and more confusing.  The beginning is fairly straight-forward: you know when you are in reality and when you are in a hallucination.  Or maybe you don’t know.  I have to say that Dick is an expert at playing games with reality.  It made for a great read, though I must admit I felt a little lost towards the end.  However, I really enjoyed it the ride it took me on.  I give it four stars out of five.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Deus Irae

Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny
Completed 5/7/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

I picked this book to read for a theology in SF/F reading challenge, and boy did I pick a doozey.  At 180 pages, this has to be one of the most complicated little books I’ve read in a long time.  I really enjoyed it, but it is heavy on the theology and has a crazy plot.  My understanding is that Dick started the book, but put it down and offered it to another writer because he didn’t know enough about Christianity to finish it.  Zelazny saw it at the other writer’s house and offered to finish it for Dick.  So part of the fun of this book is trying to guess who wrote what parts.  This only being the second book by Dick I’ve read, but the fifth by Zelazny, I still had fun playing guess the author.  But the real fun comes in the crazy plot these guys dreamed up.

After WWIII, a new religion has formed.  Its god is the God of Wrath (hence the title) and in human form is Carleton Lufteufel who made the decision to drop the bomb that destroys most of mankind.  By the way, Lufteufel means “air devil” in German.  Tibor McMasters is an “inc”, an incomplete person because he was born without arms or legs and has bionic limbs instead.  He’s also possibly the world’s greatest living painter.  He is asked by the Servants of Wrath (SOWs) to paint Lufteufel’s image in a murch, a mural in their church.  Not content to use a pre-war photo which makes Lufteufel look human, he goes on a pilgrimage to find the real Lufteufel to capture his godliness.  Tibor is followed by Pete Sands, a devout Christian who seeks God through the use of psychedelics, and who wants to sabotage the pilgrimage.  On the way, they meet the mutants created by the bomb:  talking lizard people, sentient bugs, worms, birds, and some dying AIs. 

See, the plot is pretty wild.  However, it’s fairly eash to follow.  Part of it is because the characters are developed pretty well, especially for just 180 pages.  So you get the characters quickly and jump right into the craziness that is their missions.  I really like Tibor and Pete even though they are both rather flawed.  Tibor gets sick when it’s time paint.  And he really wants out of painting Lufteufel.  He even considers converting to Christianity just to get out of it.  Pete has taken his parish priest’s advice a little too much to heart and is willing to do anything to stop Tibor. 

There’s a lot of humor as well, particularly with the mutants and AIs.  I particularly liked Pete’s encounter with the autofac, the underground automatic factory, that tortures Pete by “repairing” his bicycle.  And the book is kind of a sausage fest.  There are only three women, but two of them add humor as well.  One is the long-suffering wife of a SOW priest, the other is the long-suffering pipe smoking girlfriend of Pete.  As I write this, I realize that despite his nefarious mission, Pete does seem to be at the center of much of the comedy. 

The theological part comes into play in several ways that are pretty integral to plot.  To say too much gives away a lot.  However, I will say that the theme is that over time, we lose the authentic records of faith and come to rely on that which was artificially created.  It’s sort of like the game of telephone.  Go through enough people and the original message is replaced by the wrong message.  That which is authentic is lost forever.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s a lot of fun, particularly if you know a lot about Christianity.  It also helps if you know a little German (which I don’t).  Dick uses some German phrases and poetry, not all of which is translated.  And it might require some forays into Wikipedia like when he talks about some heresies.  Okay, some caveats to getting it, but I got it and enjoyed it.  I think the average person will too.