Saturday, January 31, 2015

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis
Completed 1/29/2015, Reviewed 1/31/2015
4 stars

Connie Willis’ second of the Oxford Time Travel Series once again has hapless time traveling historians trapped in difficult predicaments by the malfunctioning net and surrounded by single-minded characters who barely let the protagonist get a word in edgewise.  This time, this comedy of manners format is truly a comedy, crossing the style of Oscar Wilde with the formulaic mysteries of Agatha Christie set in the middle of some fairly complex time travel dilemmas.  This was my second reading of the book, and I enjoyed it far more than my first time, when I was distracted by a painful back, impending lay-offs, and the deep longing to be back in the epic fantasy world of the novel I had just finished.  This time, I thoroughly reveled in the chaos of time travel mishaps and time travelers who just can’t seem to get a break.

“Dog” centers around Ned Henry, an Oxford historian who is one of the many poor souls being ordered around the past by Lady Shrapnell, an extremely wealthy woman funding the struggling history department.  The condition of her endowment is that the department throws all their resources into her projects, this one being the recreation of the Coventry Church destroyed in WWII.  With her mantra “God is in the details”, she sends the historians back in time to identify all aspects of the church so that she can create a perfect replica.  Unfortunately, Henry has jumped into the past so many times trying to find the bishop’s bird stump, he is suffering from serious time lag.  To give him a break and hide him from Lady Shrapnell, the department’s director sends him to the late 1800s to get two weeks rest.   Of course, a series of mishaps throws him into the center of a frustrating mystery of cats, missed meetings, spiritualists, absent-minded professors, and the very first jumble sale, to say nothing of the dog. 

I think the first time I read this book, I was annoyed by the stuffy single-minded upper class who were the bane of Ned’s existence.  This time, I was able to revel more in the satire and appreciate the construction of the characters.  I was also much more caught up in the mystery.  And even though I had read the book before, I was surprised by the simple ending.  But what makes this story so fun is the roller coaster ride through the stuffy, pushy upper class bozos of the Victorian Age that completely distract you from that end.  Ned is a wonderfully likeable sad sack who just can’t get a break.  But somehow, he suffers through the self-important, over-entitled buffoons and the misfirings of the time travel net to piece together the miasma of clues to solve the mystery of the bird stump and save the future.

What really amazed me this time was the complexity Willis’ time travel chaos.  I think it helped that I’ve read all the Oxford novels now and this was my second reading of this one. Like Lady Shrapnell’s motto, the details are what make this book amazing.  It’s the butterfly effect taken to the extreme:  one seemingly minor action having major repercussions for the future.  And it speaks to Willis’ genius how she can flesh out the chaos into plot, theme, and characterization, and conflict. 


“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a great book in a great series.  Being a comedy, it doesn’t have the emotional impact of her earlier “Doomsday Book”, but it is masterful fun.  It is one of the few comedies to win the Hugo Award.  I highly recommend this novel.  If you decide to read it, I recommend starting with “Doomsday” though.  While each novel is self-contained, the chaos of the malfunctioning time travel net gets more complex, and having the exposure to it in the publishing order helps with the understanding of it.  And reading them in order of drama, comedy, long drama, makes for a better appreciation of the progression of the chaos.  Four out of five stars.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Four For Tomorrow

Roger Zelazny
Completed 1/18/2015, Reviewed 1/25/2015
3 stars

I haven’t read much Zelazny.  I was introduced to him though “Lord of Light” in my SF lit class in college.  I loved it.  Then I read his other Hugo winner, “This Immortal”, but didn’t enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed his writing style.  Now I’ve read a collection of novellas, and it reinforces for me that I love how he writes, but I can’t say I loved the stories themselves. 


I chose this book because it contained a story called “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”.  According to always perfectly reliable Wikipedia, heh, it’s his riff on the Christian myth, the way “Lord of Light” riffs on Hinduism and “This Immortal” the Greek Pantheon.  And being a novella in a collection (collections not being reprinted as often as novels), I figured it would be hard to find outside of Amazon.  So when I found this at Powell’s, I jumped on it.  And my experience with shorter fiction is that it often provides a different perspective on authors, their thoughts, and their prose than their novels. 

Rose is another Martian tale.  Galinger is a brilliant linguist.  It qualified him to travel to Mars to establish communication with its dying race.  The Martians trust him and give him access to their sacred history texts.  By doing so he unwittingly assumes the role of a long awaited prophet with the power to redeem the Martian race.  I have to admit that I didn’t care for the story at first.  I was distracted by the details of the story, as well as the quaintness of its old-fashioned view that there is intelligent life on Mars.  It’s more difficult for me to read books about indigenous beings in our solar system now that we know that if life exists there, it’s not going to be anything like us.  It is more likely to be microbial at best. 

While thinking about the review, I was able to overcome my modern prejudice and came to appreciate it more, particularly the idea of the reluctant messiah.  I think other writers have done it better elsewhere, but it’s not a bad story.  It’s just not great.  And I think I had higher hopes of something more profound than what Zelazny accomplished here.

The same holds true for two of the other stories.  “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” is a riff on Moby Dick or perhaps “The Old Man and the Sea” on Venus.  And “The Furies” is a bizarre psychic noir-ish piece where three people with glorious gifts and crippling physical or social limitations hunt down a terrible space pirate. 

The story I liked the most was “The Graveyard Heart”.  It’s an extrapolation of the shallowness of the jet set.  They hibernate between social events, allowing them to live nearly forever since they only age a few days each year when they are awakened for their parties.  It captured the despair of the uber-wealthy who eventually find no meaning in their shallow existence. 


What really stood out about these stories is Zelazny’s prose.  Even though I found myself not really interested in the premises and characters, I found the book hard to put down.  I kept on reading for the joy of the words themselves.  I just felt that despite the original critical praise the book received (again per the infallible references on Wikipedia), his stories fall a little flat.  I’ve not given up on him as an author.  I have my eye on his collaboration with Philip K Dick “Deus Irae”, and I figure I have to read at least one book in his Amber Chronicles to keep my geek card.  3 out of 5 stars.  

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Shakespeare’s Planet

Clifford D. Simak
Completed 1/16/2015, Reviewed 1/25/2015
4 stars

Though not considered one of Simak’s better works, I still loved “Shakespeare’s Planet”.  Another short novel, it represents to me how many of the authors of the golden age of SF were able to flesh out a story around a simple concept without bloating up into huge epic novels.  In this story, Simak sticks with his common devices of helpful but slightly annoying robots and aliens that are not simply anthropomorphisms of common earth creatures, putting them into a story that I couldn’t help but think was a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.  The result was thinner than the other works of his that I’ve read, but nonetheless still satisfying.


Carter Horton left earth over a thousand years ago in suspended animation with a crew of three other humans, a robot, and a computer consisting of three disembodied human brains.  An accident leaves him the only survivor of the hibernators, and he is awakened when the spaceship lands on a miserable planet.  There he meets Carnivore, a marooned alien who learned English from a man named Shakespeare, who was also marooned on the planet while Horton’s ship was still in transit.  The planet, it turns out, is one of thousands connected by a wormhole-like network of transporters built by an unknown alien race.  No one knows exactly how to program this transport system, leaving their destinations to chance.  This planet, however, seems to have been deliberately set to not permit anyone or anything to leave, signifying the general sense that this planet holds a secret terror.

The plot is basically pretty thin.  To me, the point of the book was more to reflect on ideas.  The first idea that struck me is the problem with traditional space travel.  If a crew leaves the earth today, it may take us hundreds of years to get to the nearest habitable planet.  While in transit, technology will undoubtedly advance to the point where later space travelers may get to the same destination faster.  It’s reminiscent of what we’ve already encountered with the Voyager spacecraft.  It’s leaving the solar system with an 8086 processor while we’re looking deeper into space with 40 more years of technological development. 

Another is moral ambiguity of alien.  The greatest honor of Carnivore’s society is to destroy alien (to it) monsters before they destroy them.  Are we therefore monsters to the alien, in danger of being destroyed?  Or is Carnivore merely a metaphor for how we view those different from us.  Simak explores this issue as Horton establishes a trusting relationship with Carnivore while reading the paranoid ramblings about the alien by Shakespeare.  And of course, there are a few other intriguing, imaginative aliens who are also stranded on the planet. 

But like the other books of Simak’s that I’ve read, the experience is not a plot driven adventure.  It’s about a mood, a setting.  And I think in this case, it’s about having a taste of The Tempest in space.  Horton is a sort of Prospero.  Science is his magic.  Nicodemus, the robot of his crew is his Ariel and Carnivore, his Caliban.  It’s not nearly as obvious as “Forbidden Planet”, but still seems to be the inspiration for the book.  If I knew Shakespeare better, I’m sure I’d see more similarities or references to his works in the text. 


“Shakespeare’s Planet” is not a profound book.  It’s a wonderfully written little story that I found a joy to read.  There’s just something about Simak’s prose that is warm, like a comfy quilt, without being pretentious and maudlin. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Martian

Andy Weir
Completed 1/9/2015, Reviewed 1/11/2015
4 stars

I don’t read much brand new SF, mostly because it’s cost prohibitive and the wait lists at the library are extensive.  I bought this book because it’s the January read for my SF book club.  And I think I’ve found this year’s shoe-in for the Hugo award.  “The Martian” is an exciting, hard SF take on the Robinson Crusoe tale.  Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after being skewered by an antenna during a powerful dust storm that forces the rest of his crew to abandon the mission.  Alone on the hostile planet, he must use all his engineering ingenuity to survive until the next mission to Mars can rescue him.

What I liked best about this book was that the story was straight-forward.  The characters are distinct
and interesting and have almost no backstory to soap it up.  They are very believable without being too detailed.  The story keeps moving forward and the suspense is fast paced.   It’s a tight adventure about a smart castaway. 

The only thing that slows this book down is the aspect that I’m sure most readers will love and find very fast-paced, the engineering.  In fact, this book isn’t so much science fiction as it is engineering fiction.  Watney is a botanist and a mechanical engineer.  Most of his story is spent on how he solves the problems Mars throws at him with his brilliant engineering mind.  It’s a lot like McGuyver on Mars.  I found it occasionally difficult to follow the detailed descriptions of the solutions to his problems.  Then again, I’m not an engineer.  Details often leave me glassy-eyed and bored.  And I often found myself not really digesting the details of how Watney overcame the obstacles as much as reveling in his ability to do so.  Keeping this perspective kept me on track when it could have easily derailed me. 

The part that’s a little hard to swallow is that Watney never becomes depressed or defeated.  He keeps plugging through even though he knows that there’s a greater chance of dying than surviving this ordeal.  Engineering and a wicked sense of humor keep him going.  He’s almost superhuman, having the ability to stay focused on his tasks rather than sinking into despair.  I know I couldn’t do it.  And I think a more realistic novel would have the character wallowing at least for a little while at some point in this ordeal.  But that’s exactly what keeps the book fun, exciting, and readable. 


This is no literary masterpiece by any means, but is a great pop SF novel.  A lot of people who don’t normally read SF are going read it and enjoy it.  I certainly did, despite my preference for prose and character development.  It will be one of the few times I’ll be able to agree with the majority of folks at book club.  “The Martian” easily gets four stars out of five.    

Thursday, January 15, 2015

American Gods

Neil Gaiman
Completed 1/5/2015, Reviewed 1/11/2015
5 stars

The more SF I read, the more likely I am to reread a book.  “American Gods” was an easy candidate for several reasons.  One, I needed to complete my reviews of Hugo winners, and I read it before I was writing reviews.   Two, it took me too long to read it the first time and I got lost in it a couple of time.  Since my first read of it around 2005, my reading commitment, and therefore my comprehension, has gotten a lot better.  Three, having had a lot more exposure to non-Greek and Roman mythology through my fantasy readings and personal experiences, I’ve found myself more intrigued by the premise of the book:  a war between the ancient gods and the gods of modern technology and society.

It’s tough to pin down a favorite part of the book.  It’s simply masterful in every way.  Shadow, the
main character, is easy to identify with.  Down on his luck, barely hanging on to sanity, he’s just coasting along, doing what he needs to do to survive.  That happens to be being an assistant to a Norse god, who he seems much more like a mob boss than a deity.  Shadow is constantly put into precarious situations, but has a dark guardian angel in the animated corpse of his deceased wife.  She’s sort of an anti-deus ex machina device.  If you’re going to have a deus ex machina, this is the way to do it.

He travels the Midwest meeting other gods, all of whom are old and barely making it in the modern world themselves.  As Oden’s sidekick, his mission is to help convince these others to join Oden in a battle for their survival.  And of course, there’s the modern gods, like TV, trains, and cars, who are bent on getting Shadow to side with them.  In a particularly fun scene, as he begins nodding off in a hotel room with the TV on, Lucy Ricardo, not Lucille Ball, engages him in a conversation in the middle of an episode of “I Love Lucy” and attempts to seduce him.

Throughout the story, we get snippets of how some of the ancient gods came to the New World, as it was settled by the Old World, often supplanting the gods of the earlier inhabitants.  Shadow’s meetings and these interludes help create a very believable world of the odd and supernatural, reminiscent of the feel of some of Clive Barker’s disturbing settings, though less horrifying.  And through all this, there’s even a mystery of the disappearance of young girl from a sleepy Midwest town, which at first seems extraneous, but turns comes full circle at the end of the book.

As complex as the plot is, it never feels complicated. Gaiman is an amazing writer and storyteller.  He writes prose that doesn’t seem like prose.  It’s literary without being stuffy.  The plot and the action move the story like a suspenseful pop novel, but the prose creates a mood and effect that leaves the reader stunned and breathless. 


It’s difficult to write more details about “American Gods” that doesn’t reveal the climactic denouement and the shocking twist.  Even having read it once before, I was surprised at how effective it was on my second read.  While I didn’t have some life changing emotional response to this book, I found it truly wondrous.  When I finished it, I understood why so many people have read this book over and over, because I wanted to immediately reread it again.  “American Gods” is simply magical.  Little wonder that it was nominated for and won so many awards.  Five out of five stars.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Nerves

Lester del Rey
Completed 1/10/2015, Reviewed 1/11/2015
2 stars

I bought this book from a used paperback vendor at Orycon 2014 for a buck. I thought I’d try another novel by del Rey after my less than satisfying experience with “Pstalemate” last year. “Nerves” is about an atomic products manufacturing plant disaster, originally written as a novella in 1942, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It was expanded into a short novel in ’56, and then republished around the time of the Three Mile Island accident.  I thought it would be a fun romp of disaster porn, a la the book “The Prometheus Crisis” or the film “The China Syndrome”.  Instead, it makes me consider the idea that del Rey was a better publisher and promoter of science fiction than a writer of it.

The most interesting thing about this book is that it is mostly told from the perspective of the doctor
stationed at the plant.  I rather liked Doc Ferrel, a gruff, former genius surgeon and his long suffering wife Emma, who didn’t get nearly enough scenes.  I also liked the junior surgeon Jenkins.  Del Rey made them quite real without making them too soapy, and given the short length of the novel, gave them nicely distinct personalities.  I was particularly fond of Jenkins’ self-awareness of his own nerves, which is part of the reference in the title.

The other reference to the title is the speculative result of being blasted with atomic particulates, that they cause a body’s nerves to spasm uncontrollably resulting in strain, broken bones, and paralysis.  In fact, I found the medical crisis to be more interesting than the disaster itself.  It was exciting and suspenseful. 

The rest of the story was harder to take.  Seventy years of better understanding of the effects of radiation make this book quite dated.  The blood transfusion and curare treatment del Rey purports seems na├»ve now that we know about the long term problems with cancers and genetic defects.  And the dumping of the “neutralized” radioactive waste into the nearby river is just terrifying.  It makes the happy ending simply unbelievable.

The Isotope R/Mahler’s Isotope story line was also quite contrived.  I think this is one of the problems with hard science fiction.  When an author gets too detailed in the speculation of the science, the result becomes dated and unbelievable as new knowledge increases our understanding of it.  This is a major problem in “Nerves”.  I found myself thinking “This is plain wrong” through much of the technical discussions, and I have a pretty high threshold for willing suspension of disbelief.  It’s easier to read a book about flying cars and teleportation in the 1970s than it is to read this.


I give this book two stars out of five because the medical scenes are wonderfully suspenseful.  But for being only 150 pages long, far too many pages contained contrived speculation that just flat out seemed wrong.  I seriously have to do a lot more research before picking up another del Rey book.