Sunday, May 19, 2019

Tau Zero

Poul Anderson
Completed 5/19/2019, Reviewed 5/19/2019
3 stars

This book was very hard science fiction.  I understood a lot of it, but I studied some physics and astronomy in college and enjoyed relativity.  I think Anderson did a really good job of explaining the physics in lay terms, but it still might be tough for some people.  And that’s the bright spot of this book, the physics.  The human interaction, on the other hand, is not Anderson’s forte, at least not in this book.  It’s soapy and melodramatic.  The basic plot is good, but the subplots with the characters are lacking.  It made it a bit of a slog to get through because I never found myself caring for any of the characters.

The Lenora Christine is a spaceship carrying fifty people, half men half women, to a possible planet thirty-some-odd light years away for colonization.  If it turns out to be not habitable, they’ll turn around and come back.  The ship has a fusion engine and will approach the speed of light, so much more time will pass on Earth than does on the ship.  Then things go to hell in a handbasket when they pass through a nebula which knocks out their ability to decelerate.  They can’t repair the spaceship without going outside the ship, and doing so is immensely dangerous at the speeds they are travelling.  So, they must continue to accelerate until they reach deep intergalactic space where there is almost no matter with which they can accidently interact.  But because of time dilation, the universe around them is aging.  Besides the technical aspect, the question becomes whether the passengers aboard can cope with the thousands of years passing by them on the outside while only a few pass within.

My biggest problem with the book is the people.  They are very cardboard.  The characters do not feel very real and are not memorable.  Most of the problems that happen to them are interpersonal, which Anderson did not write very well.  There’s a little bit about people not coping well with the trials that afflict them on their journey, but I think these scenes could have been fleshed out more.  And the relationships just reminded me of a soap opera, melodrama without substance. 

I also had to do some willing suspension of disbelief regarding the science.  As they approach the speed of light, they go faster and faster, of course.  But by definition, the speed of light is the limit they can attain if they have no mass.  They can’t go faster.  That means they should be taking more than thirty years to get to their initial destination, not five, which is described in the book.  And later, they continue to accelerate and zip in and out of galaxies.  This is not possible unless they attain some sort of faster than light travel, like the use of wormholes for space dilation.  I had to put all this cognitive dissonance aside and allow for the book’s conceit that approaching the speed of light gets them around superfast. 

But besides this, the plot was well-conceived, that is, being stuck in space accelerating toward the speed of light and the problems that unfold.  The problems kept coming and the people had to cope and figure out ways around it.  I give the book three stars out of five for the plot, but fail to give it anymore because, well, it’s a soap opera aboard a lost ship.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Fold

Peter Clines
Completed 5/11/2019, Reviewed 5/13/2019
4 stars

I read this book after a very dense, intense novel.  Fortunately, it was mostly a fun, exciting mystery about a device that lets you travel several hundred feet in a few steps by folding dimensions, sort of like a wormhole.  However, something is wrong with the device and only one man has the ability to put the pieces together to solve the mystery.  It’s an easy read with lots of dialogue and a little science.  It’s not a profound novel, but it hit me just right at just the right time for me to give it a good review.

The man with the abilities is Mike Erikson.  He’s got an eidetic memory.  He can recall everything he’s ever seen.  He can pull that data and arrange it complex combinations to put pieces of puzzles together.  That’s why his best friend keeps on calling on him to join his projects.  So far, he’s never been able to get Mike to give up his job as a high school teacher to work for him.  This time however, his project is the aforementioned device, called the Albuquerque Door.  He wants Mike to review the project on site and make sure that everything is copacetic, and that all the money being poured into it is not being wasted.  Mike is intrigued and agrees to work on this project on his summer vacation.  It soon becomes evident that something is amiss and nobody on the project is helping Mike get to the bottom of things.

Mike is a very interesting character.  He likens his memory gift to a colony of ants, thousands of individual creatures all working in concert together.  At first the references to the ants are confusing, but it begins to make sense that that’s how he analyzes and compiles all the information in his head.  As a result of being different, he struggled with his gift most of his life, which is why he likes being a teacher rather than being a star researcher on government projects.  He also has trouble with interpersonal relationships, keeping people at a distance. 

The rest of the cast of characters begin a little one note, with everyone hostile towards Mike, thinking he’s there to shut them down.  They soon become more colorful, but why they do adds to the mystery surrounding the Albuquerque Door, as nothing seems to prompt their changes in attitude.  So at first, the characters all bled into each other, but as their personalities diverged, they became more distinct and a lot more fun. 

The mysteries of the Door encompass the first two-thirds of the book.  This is the best part.  It’s fun and exciting and pretty well written.  The last third was a little bizarre for me.  I can’t really explain why because that would be a major spoiler.  Suffice it to say, I found myself not quite as engrossed as I previously had been.  The end, though not a cliffhanger, leaves it open for numerous sequels. 

This is no profound piece of literature.  What it is is an enjoyable, readable romp through the concept of teleportation.  Actually, it’s not quite teleportation, but that’s defined in the book, and I’ll let you read that.  I give the book four stars out of five because I highly enjoyed the book, and wasn’t deterred by the last part.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Devourers

Indra Das
Completed 5/4/2019, Reviewed 5/4/2019
4 stars

This was an unusual novel, billed as a werewolf novel, but it isn’t exactly.  It’s a shape-shifter story which takes place in India now and several hundred years in the past.  It tackles issues of rape, gender-roles, identity, and love.  I was not consumed by this story within a story as I thought I’d be, but it does have glorious prose and its take on the shape-shifter trope feels fresh.  It won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror and was nominated for the Tiptree Award.  Although I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the book, I feel that it is something special and worth a read.

The overarching plot Is about Alok, an Indian college professor who meets a stranger at a circus-like event.  The stranger confesses that he is not human, but something akin to a werewolf.  Alok is intrigued.  The stranger asks him to transcribe scrolls that contain the story of one such man-eating shape-shifter and the woman who he loves.  As Alok types out this story, he becomes obsessed with it and the stranger. 

The inner story is about Fenrir, a taken name based on the giant wolf of Norse Mythology.  He is in a pack of three shape-shifters.  Fenrir, despite having a sexual relationship with his pack mates, falls in love with a human woman.  Rather than having a normal relationship with her, he rapes her.  Love and sex with humans are forbidden by the shape-shifters’ tribes, and the pack breaks up rather violently.  The story then becomes the tale of the journey of the woman with one of the former pack mates, as she seeks her perpetrator and comes to grip with bearing a hybrid child.

As I mentioned at the start, the prose is wonderful.  It makes for an easy read and creates multidimensional characters.  I really liked Alok, who is basically a hapless, lonely, bisexual person struggling to find intimacy among his few friends.  His growing obsession with the stranger is a desperate cry for attention, despite the possibility of danger, assuming the stranger’s tale is real.  The stranger of course is interesting because of the mystery he weaves.  But the real star of the book is the raped woman who despite not trusting anyone since her mother died, and having just experienced this violence against her, comes to trust Fenrir’s pack mate.  Her anger is very real, and at times difficult to read because it is written so well.  The bulk of the story is about her and her journey to find Fenrir. 

There is a lot of violence in the book, and it has a very gritty feel to it.  The devouring of humans by the shape-shifters is very graphic.  There is also a lot of urinating to mark territory.  In general, there’s just a lot of bodily fluids in this book.  It’s hard to stomach at times, as the woman vomits a lot, but it all adds to the very vivid nature of her experience, as well as that of the shape-shifters.

I give the book four stars out of five.  I was going to give it three because I wasn’t that engaged with the book, but looking at it objectively, this is some fine writing and a fairly unique story.  I had to bump it up a star because of this.  The book has some action, but basically, it’s a study of issues and transgressions.  I recommend it to anyone who likes their books a little more philosophical and didactic.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Karen Memory

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 4/27/2019, Reviewed 4/27/2019
4 stars

I’m not a huge steampunk or western fan, but I really enjoyed this cross between the two.  The book is about a prostitute with a heart of gold in the Pacific Northwest during the Washington territory days in the 1800s.  It’s mixed with a Jack the Ripper style murder mystery where women are found in alleyways flogged to death.  It was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2016 for positive LGBTQ content in Science Fiction/Fantasy.

The book is told in first person narrative by Karen Memery, like memory but with an e.  She’s an orphaned girl doing the best she can in Madame Damnable’s high-class bordello in a town called Rapid that’s a sort of amalgam of Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and San Francisco, servicing the mariners and the gold seekers before they head up to Alaska.  All is relatively normal until one day, an injured girl named Priya shows up on the doorstep.  Turns out she’s from India and was abducted and forced into prostitution by the evil competing bordello.  Taking her in creates a war between the two houses.  At around the same time women begin appearing in alleyways flogged to death.  The owner of the other house has a mind-control device that he uses to control his indentured prostitutes as well as influence the people of the town against Madame Damnable.  Also coming into the story are a black Lone Ranger type with an American Indian sidekick who are searching for the murderer.  Together they all try to solve the murder mystery while surviving the attacks from the competing house.

The story is really well done.  It’s told in old west style, low-educated grammar.  At first I found it a little annoying, then appreciated it for giving us a sense of who Karen is.  It’s just the right touch of quaint without being too difficult to read.  There aren’t a lot of flashbacks into Karen’s past but she conveys her life experience as well as her hopes and dreams.  In particular, she tells us about how she is falling in love with Priya and wants to settle down on a ranch of her own with her.  She’s been saving up money to buy land, as working in the Hotel Mon Cherie pays pretty well.  We get to know a lot about Priya, as well as several of the young women working at the bordello as they all interact as a family.  The characterization is really well done.

In the steampunk category, there are dirigibles, the mind-control device, a Nautilus-type submersible run by a captain nicknamed Nemo, and a walk-in sewing machine/automaton that Karen uses as a sort of coat of armor.  This walk-in sewing machine was the only thing I didn’t quite get.  I got that it was like having armor that enhances the musculature of the wearer, but I never got how it was used for sewing.  It didn’t ruin the story for me in any way, it just made me wonder what it’s for besides escaping from burning buildings or busting people out of jail. 

Readers of my blog may note that I’ve been reading this book over two weeks.  It’s not a long book, and it’s quick reading.  I was just distracted by gaming.  If I wasn’t playing games for two solid weeks, I would have read more than 20 pages a night.  The action is well described and fast paced.  I would have finished this book a lot more quickly if I hadn’t been playing so many games. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s not my usual brand of excellent, but it was really well written and thought out.  I liked Karen, the book’s setting, and its plot.  It’s pretty fun, and I think would have been a fast read under normal circumstances. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Luna: New Moon

Ian McDonald
Completed 4/10/2019, Reviewed 4/11/2019
4 stars

This book is the definition of space opera.  It’s sort of a cross between a prime-time soap opera and The Godfather set on the Moon.  It’s about five families, known as the Five Dragons, who control five different mega-corporations on the Moon and their wars with each other.  At first I didn’t care for the book.  I was overwhelmed with the number of characters (of which there is a three- or four-page glossary before the book starts) and the constant changes in perspectives among many of them.  Somewhere after about a third of the way through, I got hooked into the story and found it a fascinating and engrossing thrill-ride.  It’s the first book in a three-part (so far) series that ends with a bang, but also leaves you hanging for the sequel.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2016 for positive portrayal of LGBTQ themes in SF/Fantasy.

The majority of the story centers around the Corta family, led by the matriarch Adriana.  Hailing from Brazil, they control the extraction of Helium-3, fulfilling the energy demands of the Earth.  She is old, and there is tension between two of her children, Rafa and Lucas, over who will have control of the company when she dies.  More immediately, there is a sort of lukewarm war between the Cortas and another family, the McKenzies, who run a mega-mining operation.  There are assassinations and attempts, arranged marriages to create alliances, vendettas, and all sorts of intrigue within and between each family.  All this in an environment where the line between life and death is razor sharp.  In fact, people must pay for the Four Elementals:  water, air, carbon, and data.  People pay per breath.  Become unemployed, and soon you will suffocate from not being able to afford your breathing.  But this is a minor issue for the ultra-rich Five Dragons.

The world created on the Moon is one of extreme capitalism run amok.  There is no law but contract law.  You can murder, steal, cheat on your spouse, and so on, as long as you have not signed a contract forbidding it.  And when contract breaches come to court, they can be settled by a duel.  There are no guns on the moon because of the chances of puncturing holes in the protected environments, so the duels usually involve knives.  And there is no democracy, no government of any kind.  Everything is basically controlled by the Five Dragons. 

Like a TV show like Dallas or Dynasty, almost all the characters are part of one of the five families, or work for them.  We don’t get a taste of what it’s like to be poor on the Moon, except through the eyes of one character, Mariana, a fairly recent immigrant who with her friend (or lover, I was never sure exactly which) are within pennies of running out of breaths.  Fortunately, she gets a job with the Cortas, but not before her friend dies from lack of payment.  However, Mariana’s struggle with poverty really only occurs at the beginning.  Once she is employed, we don’t experience what the lower classes experience ever again.  This is too bad, for though it would make the book much longer, it might have made the world a little more fully developed.

I was really surprised that I liked the characters in the Corta family even though they had their share of moral repugnance.  They’re not the good guys.  They are just most three-dimensional characters of the book.  There is a machismo that runs through the men of the family, which is a fatal flaw for many of them, particularly Carlosinho and Lucas.  I liked Lucasinho, Adriana’s mostly gay grandson.  At seventeen, he attempts to run away from home and live without his family.  He has to learn to live by his wits since his father Lucas cuts him off from his accounts.  I also liked Ariel, Adriana’s daughter who is a lawyer and an asexual.  And lastly, I was intrigued by Wagner, Adriana’s youngest son, who is a “wolf”.  He lives in a pack and is influenced by the full Earth in the sky.  The concept of a wolf seemed to be a little hokey, but it intrigued me and I wish there was a little more description of what being a wolf actually entails.

I give the book four stars out of five.  It took a while to grab me, but once it did, I wanted to keep on reading.  However, I don’t necessarily feel compelled to follow the story into the next books.  The prose is decent, but I didn’t like how the perspective changed numerous times through a chapter.  This was especially problematic in the beginning when there are so many characters being introduced.  I recommend this book to anyone who likes space opera. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Jodi Taylor
Completed 3/31/2019, Reviewed 3/31/2019
3 stars

This was a fun, light, time-travel novel.  The author is British and the humor is quite snarky.  I enjoyed it for the most part, but I liked Connie Willis’ time-travel books better.  This is the first of a fairly long series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of them unless I see them on sale, or I’m in dire need of something light. 

The story revolves around Dr. Maxwell, a woman fresh out of her doctorate studies in history.  She meets an old elementary school teacher who gets her an interview at a history institute.  All things are hush-hush about what the job actually entails until she signs some pretty serious non-disclosure statements.  She finds out that the job involves going back in time to do research that is then used by the parent university.  She enthusiastically agrees and begins an intensive training program.  Her first assignment is to go back to the Crustaceous Era and film and study the flora, fauna, geology, and night sky.  At the end of the trip, things go horribly wrong, and then it’s just one damned thing after another.

The best thing about the book is that it is generally fast-paced and action-packed.  Five years goes by rather quickly.  I wasn’t quite sure when the five years had passed.  That was pretty unclear, but the book kept me reading anyway and I just ignored the timeline (pretty ironic for a time-travel novel).

The characters were also pretty fun.  The main character, Maxwell, was fairly well created, but most of the other characters were less than three-dimensional.  But this one- or two-dimensionality was part of the fun.  It made for a goofy cast with clear-cut bad guys. 

There is one part I definitely didn’t like.  At one point, the plot gets rather soapy, as Maxwell falls in love with someone she works with closely at the institute.  While the relationship was okay, I didn’t think it was necessary to add what amounted to a melodramatic twist. 

I don’t have too much more to say about this book.  If I did, it would give away a lot of the twists and turns in the plot.  And it’s just not the kind of book you want to analyze too closely.  I believe that to enjoy it, it’s best to take it at face value.  I give it three out of five stars.  It’s good, it’s fun.  I recommend it as light fluff to almost everyone. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Passing Strange

Ellen Klages
Completed 3/27/2019, Reviewed 3/27/2019
5 stars

Last year, I read 94 books and gave out ten five-star ratings.  The last one was in September.  This year, it took 24 books and nearly three months before awarding another five stars.  I was so moved by this novella that I had to walk around the apartment to work off the emotions that had settled in my gut.  I loved this story about queer women in 1940 San Francisco.  It tells of lesbian love in a time rife with homophobia and racism.  And there’s a little magic thrown in the mix.  If the magic were more subtle, I would have called it Magical Realism, but really, it’s fantasy.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ content in speculative fiction, won the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards for Best Novella, and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novella and the Mythopoeic Award.

The story begins with Helen, an old lawyer with a terminal illness who possesses the last painting by the acclaimed artist Haskell.  She spends her last day selling the painting and divvying up the proceeds among friends and charities before taking pills to end her life.  This is not a spoiler; it’s the first chapter.  The book then goes back to 1940 where a circle of lesbian friends gathers for a dinner party.  There we meet Helen as a young woman, Franny, Babs, Haskell, and newcomer Emily.  The group regularly hangs out at Mona’s, a bar where women dress as men, and is frequented by the lesbian community as well as straight Midwest couples who come to gawk and be amazed at the drag kings show.  One night after the dinner party the group goes to Mona’s where Haskell is astounded to find that Emily is the star of the nightly show as her alter ego Spike.  Haskell and Emily fall in love and the two become a couple.  Of course, life for lesbians is not easy in 1940, even in San Francisco.  It’s even more complicated by the fact that Haskell is still married to a man.

As I mentioned above, this is a novella, under 220 pages.  Yet it finds a way to encompass a romance while presenting hard facts about homophobia and racism.  There’s a scene where Spike’s female piano player is roughed up and arrested by the police for wearing men’s clothing without wearing the required three articles of women’s clothing.  There’s also a scene in a Chinatown supper club that caters to whites where the host is chock full of racist jokes at the expense of the Asian performers.  Times were hard for people of color and for the queer community.  The author did a lot of research on old San Francisco and it’s evident in how she captured these issues in these scenes.

I can’t really discuss the magic in the story as it comes to play at the climax of the story and would be a spoiler.  And if there’s any criticism one could have for the book, it would be that the magic system is not fully elaborated upon, except for the fact that it’s old-country magic.  In that sense, it is a bit like Magical Realism, that is, magic in a real-world or mundane setting.  But I think Magical Realism often uses myth or allegory, and this book does not.  Still, it’s wonderful how it’s presented.

One of the best things about the book is how it portrays this group of friends.  It captures a common occurrence in the LGBTQ community, where friends become family when biological families reject them.  The whole middle part of the book is about Haskell and Emily, but we get enough of a sense of who the others are so that it is only natural that they all come together to help the lovers in their time of need.

My requirement for giving a five-star rating is that the book is excellent AND moves me emotionally in some profound way.  I didn’t cry at the end, but the book made my whole insides quiver.  The prose was elegant without being overbearing.  The dialogue was realistic and natural.  At the end, I wished I could have stayed with these women longer, gotten to know them all much more deeply.  But if it were longer, it may not have been the perfect little book that I won’t be able to stop gushing about for days.